THE WAY IT SPOZED TO BE
"A new, powerful, low-keyed document... .A very personal, moving and
readable book." — The New York Times
Here is the sad, yet funny, record of one ill-fated year in a metropolitan
ghetto school, (98 percent Negro, 99 percent "deprived," and 100 percent
chaotic). It tells how the educational bureaucracy, the schools, and life itself
in our big cities are all rigged against the students who can't take it— the ones
we call deprived in our big cities
We had just come out of the library from our first meeting with the
principal, just the new teachers, perhaps fifteen of us. I walked down the hall
with a man named Skates whom I'd just met. It was mid-afternoon; the hall
At least it looks like a school, I was saying, old, dark, the same brown
window shades all pulled exactly three-quarters of the way down. I was
rather pleased about that. A real school, not one of those new ones I saw
going up all over that looked like motels or bowling alleys. I was about to
say that the motel- schools fooled nobody; they were still schools, and the
same old crap was going to go on in them. Here, at least, everyone was
notified right away by the looks of things that it was the same old crap.
Suddenly, a trio of girls burst upon us as if they had been lying in ambush.
One jumped ahead, pointing a finger at me.
You a new teacher?
All of them, it looks like.
You teach the eighth?
Yes. Eighth too.
What you teach to the eighth grade?
English. Social Studies. No, only English to the eighth grade.
The other two girls were hanging back, giggling, This girl crowded me,
standing right next to me, looking straight up. I kept my head absurdly
raised, feeling that if I bent down I'd graze the top of her head with my chin I
kept stepping back in order to get a look at her, and also to get away from
her. She kept moving forward; she acted as if this was her hall, she owned it,
and I, a stranger, could be interrogated at will. She talked very loudly,
smiling and grinning all the time but still almost shouting every word,
having a fine time. It was OK with me.
What your name?
Herndon. Mr. Herndon.
OK, Mr. Hern-don, saying Hern-dawn, accent last syllable, as I was to
hear it spoken from then on by all students. OK, Mr. Herndon, you all right.
I'm gonna be in your class. You better believe it! I'm in your class!
Well, fine, I said. Good. The two girls giggled in the background. Skates
stood around, waiting, She ignored all of them; her business was with me.
It seemed to be over. I waved my hand at her and started to move off. She
grabbed me by the arm.
I ain't done! Listen you, Mr. Herndon, my name Ruth. Ruth! You'll hear
about me, don't worry about it. And what I say, Mr. Herndon, you don't
cause me no trouble and I don't cause you none! You hear?
That suits me, I said. Well, see you later, Ruth, girls. Skates and I started
You don't cause me none, and I don't cause you none she yelled once
more, and then the three of them took off, sprinting down the hall away from
us, laughing like hell and yelling at the top of their lungs. Someone opened
the library door and looked out after they passed, but they had already turned
the corner and were out of sight.
The first day, sure enough, there was Ruth in my eighth grade B class. She
was absolutely the craziest looking girl I've ever seen. Her hair was a mass
of grease, matted down in some places, sticking straight out in several
others. Her face was faintly Arabic, and she was rather handsome, meaning,
I suppose, that her features were Caucasian in style. She was very black.
Across her forehead a tremendous scar ran in a zigzag pattern from
somewhere above the hairline on her left side across to her right eye, cutting
into the eyebrow. The scar was dead white. She was about five feet three
inches tall, weighed maybe 115 pounds. Not thin, anyway. Her entire figure
seemed full of energy and power; she was, every time I saw her,
completely alert and ready. She could have been any age from fifteen to
twenty-five. I once tried to look up her age, there were so many rumors
about her from the faculty and from other students, but that fact was absent
from her file; on every sheet, the space after Age was simply left blank. No
one knew, and apparently no one knew why it was that no one knew.
True to her word, she didn't cause me no trouble that fist day. She sat at
the second desk in her row and all she did was to sit there and grab all the
pencils I handed out for that row and refuse to pass them back. The row
burst into an uproar, demanding their pencils. The other rows, not having
thought of this themselves, yelled derisively, That row ain't gittin' any!
Please pass the pencils back, Ruth, I said, reasonably but loudly, since I
wanted to be heard. In the back of my mind I was still wondering how she
got in my class, or at least how she knew she was going to be in my class.
The other two girls were there too, I saw.
Ruth jumped up immediately. Don’t go bellowing at me! she yelled. You
got plenty of pencils! You spozed to give ’em all out! They ain't your
pencils! You spozed to give'em out! I need these pencils!
The class yelled out, Whooooo-eee! Whoooeee! They all made the same
sound. Everyone stood up, laughing and yelling whooo-eee except for the
kids in Ruth's row who all screamed, We ain’t got no pyenculs!
I advanced on the row. Sit down! I shouted at everybody. I did have plenty
of pencils, and I was going to give one to each kid in the row and forget
about it. Let her keep the goddamn pencils ! Who cared? But as I came
toward the row, Ruth suddenly flung the handful of pencils out into the
room, screeched out No! and launched herself backwards into space. She
actually hew through the air and landed on her back on the floor after
crashing— some part of her body or head, I couldn't tell— against a desk and a
kid or two. Across the room twenty kids dived, shouting, for the pencils. No
trouble, I thought bitterly, and came over to get her up. That’s all I could
think of at the time, get this damn girl off the floor. But again, as I moved,
she jumped up, full of life, and fled for the door.
You ain't sending me to Miss Bentley, nobody sending me! I go tell her
myself what you done, Mr. Herndon!
Bang. She was gone. The class was still squabbling over the pencils, but
not seriously, and a few were still taunting the row which didn't have none,
but only halfheartedly. They were too impressed with Ruth. So was 1. 1
passed out some more pencils, and everyone sat down and awaited excitedly
the passing out of paper, enrollment cards and books.
Still, I felt betrayed. I thought she meant it, out there in the hall, about the
no trouble. Perhaps the fact that I thought about it at all, took her statement
seriously in that way, was the first mistake; the girl was a student in the
eighth grade, I was the teacher. Period. Or again, I had been passing out
pencils all day, to each class, but as it turned out I was only supposed to give
them out to my first-period class. These kids had already gotten pencils in
their own first period; they were receiving a bonus, a free gift. Free gifts
were a mistake too.
As it turned out, she hadn't betrayed me at all. In Ruth's terms, she hadn't
really caused me no trouble. " Not no real trouble. That became very clear
later on in the year.
In this book I'm trying to tell about my year teaching — learning to teach —
in a public school, a year spent in a particular school, at a particular time,
and with particular students. These particulars are my anecdote.
It is certainly the anecdote that counts. Not the moral, the point, or the
interpretation. If just the particulars can be kept clear, then there will be a
kind of thing made, something to see the interpretations map then be as
numerous as readers.
This is why I write down whatever circumstances and events I clearly
remember, in such detail as I remember, including cause, effect, and
consequence if possible, hopefully without extravagance of any sort. But
also, to relate only what I remember. I wouldn't consider, for instance, going
back to school records to look up information, or talk to people to "refresh"
my memory or to find evidence of unremembered things. I have the feeling
that such as I remember will suffice, and indeed will form a pattern (a unity,
an anecdote), which is the kind of thing which humans, willy-nilly, are
Thus: I remember the first meeting we new teachers had there in the
library, right before Skates and I ran into Ruth.
Nothing much happened. It was the same sunny September afternoon
outside, but it was rather dark inside the school and the library lights were
on. There were, as I said, some fifteen of us— some white, some Negro.
George Washington Junior High was a Negro school— about 98 percent
Negro, they had told me downtown in the district office, as if to say not
entirely Negro. I had been wondering how many of the teachers would be
Negroes; well, as I said, some white and some Negro. Of the new teachers, I
had talked only with Skates (white) and Mr. Brooks (Negro)— as it turned out
they were the two I was to come most in contact with, and the only two of
my colleagues whom, at the end of the year, I could say I really knew.
I certainly remember Mr. Grisson. He told us candidly that this was his
first principalship, that he expected to make mistakes himself and certainly
would not be surprised if we made some too. The thing to do with mistakes,
he said, was to learn from them. He told us something of his
background, his interests out-side of school.
We were read off the names of department heads, and informed that they
were there to help us; it was also explained to us that this
departmentalization did not mean that our individual freedoms to teach how
we pleased would be in any way affected, but that its purpose was to assist
planning so that the students at GW might have an orderly and unrepetitive
progression through the grades.
The subject of discipline was mentioned, and everyone grew alert. As
Skates told me later, this was where you found out what was really supposed
to happen, and of course he was absolutely right. The administration was
going to make statements about discipline. No doubt they had spent some
time preparing what they were going to say; what we heard was that this
administration wished to concentrate on the individual, on his freedom of
action, learning, growth and development, and at the same time, to promote
an orderly and responsible group of children.
The plot's always the same, whispered Skates. From this perfect and
impossible statement, I gathered, you were supposed to figure out the real
attitude of the administration toward the behavior of students in your
classrooms, with an eye to your own evaluation. That is, what degree of
control you were being ordered to maintain or what degree of disturbance
and chaos would be acceptable.
On that afternoon it was really made easy by Miss Bentley, the vice-
principal. Miss Bentley offered us the example of the Army. The Army, she
submitted, was an organization of people given certain tasks to perform. So
was a school. The tasks were vital. Perhaps, she grinned, those of us old
enough could remember the messed-up details, the old hurry-up-and-wait,
the origin and meaning of the word SNAFU, but the over-all mission was
vital, The school's overall mission was the education of children.
There was nothing new in any of this even then, and as a result I lost
interest and failed to make interpretations. I wasn't worrying about the
existence of "discipline problems" nor about whether or not I might have
one. I hadn't any interest in the question of classroom control— I'm telling
you how I felt about the matter then.
In order that learning may take place, Miss Bentley was saying, there must
first be order. Mr. Grisson was nodding cordially. Fie was a man of perhaps
fifty, gray-blond, going a bit bald. He spoke quietly but in quite definite and
commanding tones like an actor or an officer. Miss Bentley was tall, solid
and hard of limb, neat, and not unattractive; her age was perhaps thirty-five !
It wasn't easy to tell. She didn't do much smiling. She had a job to do, she
appeared to say, and if she seemed to look us over speculatively it was
probably to wonder which of us was going to understand. Which would be
able to help— who might hinder? It never occurred to her, I think, that
someone might not choose to act the way she thought correct; if some of us
didn't do so, it was because we couldn't understand. At least, that’s the way I
came to think later on in the year. At the time, I wasn't very interested.
Since that’s a remark I’ve made twice now, I feel obligated to explain it.
My lack of interest wasn't simply naive, at least not in the way which springs
immediately to mind, that of the imaginary progressive educator who
imagines, or has been popularly supposed to imagine, that given a nice,
friendly teacher and lots of freedom of action and very little planning, the
students will always be good-natured, orderly, interested, motivated, well-
behaved and studious, in short, nice themselves. I didn't doubt that there
might be noise, disorder, anarchy, chaos and all that in my own classroom; I
just didn't see that this constituted a "problem" any more than a quiet,
studious class was a "problem." Perhaps they were both problems, put it that
way. But what administrations mean when they say "problem" is something
which is not supposed to happen, something which happens all the time of
course, or it wouldn't be a "problem," but which isn't supposed to happen. A
problem. You were supposed to believe in, and work toward, its
Noise, quiet. I simply wasn't making any plans to promote one and
forestall the other. I didn't feel I was going to do things, say things or try
things with an eye to their result in terms of noise or quiet. I think I felt then,
or would have felt had I thought about it, that you do what you want to do or
can in a classroom, and then you see the result, or something of the result,
and then you deal with that as you want to or can. One result isn't really
much better than another, as far as you can tell. You don't know. I think that
should be obvious to everyone by now.
What was I thinking about when I should have been interpreting the
administration's careful clues? I remember thinking that I disagreed with
Miss Bentley's one-way connection between order and learning. It was so
obviously not necessarily so that I knew she couldn't mean it; it was just
talk, something to say. (It wasn't; it was a clue.) I was a little surprised at
myself and angry too, for thinking about it at all. For a year in the mountains
near Yosemite I hadn't thought about what I agreed or disagreed with in
terms of anything like "learning" or "education," and I frankly didn't plan to
start now. To hell with all that. I remember being pleased though, that I was
going to be working steadily, earning decent money and supporting my
family. Then I remember thinking how pleased From would be about the
job, and about the coming few free days before I went to work, how idly and
pleasantly I meant to enjoy them.
3. Welcome Back!
The first morning of the year at any school is bound to be pretty exciting
and especially, it seems to me, at a junior high. You can stand around and
watch the kids pour in, dressed as nicely as possible, all of them like
yourself having forgotten momentarily what they're in for, yelling and
laughing to each other, talking, asking questions— Whose room you got?—
comparing summers and new shoes, all familiar and noisy and pleasant.
Nothing is required of anyone so far.
I moved down through the kids to the end of the hall. There a huge new
poster hung high on the wall above the stairs. WELCOME BACK it said.
Underneath these words a painted picture showed two kids, a boy and a girl,
carrying lunch boxes and books, heading for school. An arrow sign painted
in over on the side said in case there was any doubt.
The only trouble with the poster was that these two life-sized painted kids
didn't look like anybody I saw, or was likely to see, heading for old George
Washington Junior High. The girl wore a blue sweater with buttons neatly
painted down the front and a little round white collar on top; beneath that
she wore a plaid skirt. The boy wore a white shirt, a red tie and a green
letterman's sweater with a big W on it. They both wore brown-and- white
The girl was a blonde. Her hair hung in a nice long curl around her
shoulders. The boy had brown hair, combed straight back. They were both
white. Not just Caucasian. The butcher paper on which they’d been painted
hadn't been white enough to suit the artist or artists, and they had carefully
painted the arms, legs, and faces of their subjects with a thick, shiny, white
paint. They were the whitest kids I ever saw, and there they were, headed for
the first day of school at George Washington Junior High.
4. The Word
As I started up the stairs to my room, a man came around from the side out
of the teachers' room and grabbed me by the arm. Well, he said, how do you
OK, I said cheerfully.
Let's see, I don't know all the new names yet.... You're Mr.—?
Glad to know you, he said. I'm the coach. We shook hands. Get to come to
work without a tie. Best thing about the job.
Indeed, I could see he wore a sport shirt and wind-breaker. He was a white
man, perhaps forty-five, getting a little heavy.
Well, Jim, you can have it just two ways here, he said, keeping hold of my
arm. Pretty good, or pretty goddamn bad. Nothing in between. And it won't
ever change either. However it starts for you, it’s gonna stay that way.
I waited. It was, again, just talk. He continued.
I've had some pretty good years here as a coach. You ever hear of — or — ?
He named two well-known Negro ballplayers. I had them both, one after the
other, worked with both of them.
Listen, Jim, I always Like to get in a word with the new men teachers.
Like to help them start out right. The women, it's different, These ladies,
especially these old colored ones, they have some kind of hold on the kids
we don't. Jim, you ever work with these kids before?
No, I admitted.
I thought so. Well, now, the first thing is, you don't ever push 'em, and you
don't expect too much. If you do, they'll blow ski-high and you'll have one
hell of a time getting them down again. May never do it. Now, its not their
fault, we all know that. But you have to take them as they are, not as you and
me would like them to be. That means, you find out what they can do, and
you give it to them to do.
Now, that’s true on the field just as much as in the classroom. Push'em an
inch more than that, and they blow. And you better find out real quick what
they can do, otherwise you've lost them. Take on the field— I see a boy out
there high-jumping and I might want to tell him, Look, boy, change your
style of jumping to this or that way... I see something about how the kid's
jumping, maybe. I see that if he changes, he'll get another two or three
inches, maybe. Now, in a particular case that might just mean that he'd get
on the track team here, or he might win the city meet, or it might mean— it
depends on the case— he might make all-city. It might mean that when he
gets down to the high school here he might be somebody. You ever stop to
think how many kids from that high school make the big time in sports?
How else are these kids going to make it?
But if I tell that kid that, change your style, chances are he might go crazy,
yell and swear around, knock over the standards and throw out all the
sawdust, get in everybody's way, ruin the whole period. I know that; I've
seen it happen too many times. Not a one in a hundred that can take any kind
of criticism. So, unless I know the boy well, I don't say anything. You see
what I'm driving at?
The first bell rang then, and kids began to stream past us; they had five
minutes to pull themselves together and find their classrooms. It saved me
from having to answer. I was a little embarrassed; the guy was trying to help
me out, and he was probably right. It sounded right then, and it sounds right
now, as description of how things were. It just didn't have anything to do
with me. He was telling me how to keep out of trouble, but I couldn't see
that I was in any, or was going to get in any. I wasn't making any plans,
beyond going up to my room, taking the roll, and giving out the pencils. I
moved to go up the stairs along with the kids.
Don't hurry, said the coach. You'll get there. This is important. Don't forget
what I said. Now, the second thing is, The Word. You know about The
He said it like that, in capitals, grinning at me. No, I said, chuckling. It
seemed funny. 'What's The Word?
The Word is the one thing you can't ever let them say in the classroom. It’s
kind of a tradition around here, you might say. Any kid says The Word, then
right down to the office with him, no arguing, ifs, ands buts. Just make out
the slip; all you have to write is The Word. They all know it, the kids, and
they expect it. Now, this isn’t an ordinary school in many ways, and one
of the ways is swearing. You'll find you have to ignore a lot of talk you
wouldn't dream of putting up with in some other place. My advice here is,
forget it. It doesn't mean a thing, and if you try to stop it you won't get
anywhere, and you won't have time to do anything else. But once they use
The Word and you let them get away with it, they'll run all over you. Don't
let 'em do it. Well— he grinned again— you know what The Word is now?
I laughed. Yeah, I said. I guess I do.
That's it, he said. That's the one. He looked around quickly though and
whispered, just to make sure, mother fucker.
As I finally headed for class I thought I'd take his advice. It was something
cut and dried, automatic, like taking the roll. If anyone said The Word I'd
send them down, and that was that.
As it turned out, the only time The Word was ever spoken out loud in my
class in its full glory was in such a bizarre context that I didn't do anything
about it after all. Other than that once, it never came up. The kids all just
said "mother," as in "you mother" or "look at that mother," and let it go at
that. No, that might be The Word as far as the teachers were concerned, but
to the kids it made no difference at all.
So the only advice I was given which I felt like taking proved to be
unnecessary. The Word didn't cause me no trouble. Unfortunately that didn't
mean that there wasn't a word which did cause trouble, a word which,
whenever it was spoken, caused an uproar, a violent argument, or a fight. If
used in connection with someone not actually present in the classroom, it
provoked the most immediate and unstoppable hilarity. Whooo-eee was
heard from every side, the kids jumped up and down and sometimes fell
down, in the aisles pretending to be helpless with laughter. If spoken about,
or to, someone present, the sound of the class was a lower and apprehensive
Ooooooh? and there was trouble. The Word was black.
The summer after I left the mountains I'd gone around applying for jobs on
the basis of having my credentials, and in order to make that true I was
obliged to take sixteen units of education work during the summer. You
were only allowed to take nine, I discovered, but I took all sixteen anyway—
nine at State, four at Berkeley, and three by correspondence. So if I was
annoyed with myself, as I mentioned, for thinking at all about such things as
even the most superficial theories of learning, it was probably because I'd
had enough of it that summer. My plan was to go into the classroom and
shut the door, leaving the rest of the school to run without my aid,
suggestions or criticisms.
GW was already making that difficult. I might as well include here the
type of thing that bothered me from the first. It was a kind of stubborn
inconsistency between thought and action, stubborn because there seemed to
be no reason for it. Since this is a real prejudice which I took with me into
GW— which the school itself wasn't responsible for— it may perhaps have this
chapter to itself.
I saw from my schedule that I taught five periods to four different groups—
a seventh-grade B class, which I had twice, an eighth-grade B class, a ninth-
grade D class, and a seventh-grade H class. Nothing had been mentioned in
the meeting about a system of classification involving A's and B’s, but
inquiry around the coffee tables in the teachers' room had informed me that
the kids were all rated A (high) to H (low) and placed in classrooms together
accordingly. The ratings were made on the basis of IQ tests, standardized
achievement tests, and, on occasion, faculty recommendation. Added to this
imposing number of groups were a couple of classes which were supposed
to be retarded and were naturally taught in the basement. I didn't know this
detail until later on in the year, but I mention it now to complete the student
It is this kind of classification, based on this kind of testing, which seems
to me the perfect example of the kind of thing that continually goes on in a
school, and for which there is no reasonable explanation. Talking just to any
teacher, as I did that year, you can hear a perfectly plausible lecture to the
effect that IQ (or Mental Maturity, as it now goes) tests are not particularly
valid under the best of conditions— that is, their validity is only general. You
can't say, for example, that a child who scores 120 is any more capable than
one who scores 116, 112, or anything above, say, 100. The Achievement
Tests, which hope to measure what the child has actually learned in school,
rather than what he may be capable of learning, have results equally
hazardous of interpretation. If they tend to place a seventh-grade child at
grade level 7.6, has that child actually learned more than the 7.1 or 6.9 child,
and has he learned less than the 7.9 or the 8.21 Does one take tests well and
another badly? Did one spend the sixth grade being drilled on punctuation
and another writing science-fiction stories? Does one like to read? Was one
ill when map-reading was going on? Did he have ringworm? Was he in
Juvenile Hall? The questions are endless and also nonsensical, presenting
you with a perfect (William) Jamesian confrontation but not, of course,
much good for anything else.
Under the best of conditions, your teacher will say, not very valid. Not a
description of much that is real, given any particular kid. You'll hear about
something called "middle-class" values— that is, the tests are based on them-
-and that apparently means the middle-class kids can read and are used to
following printed instructions. Even the "nonverbal" part of the test you
have to read, since it's all still printed on paper, including of course the
lengthy, repetitive and pretentious instructions. What about good old GW?
Not so middle class by a long shot, not to mention verbally adequate. Most
teachers, I say, will give you that kind of talk, yet at the same time you'll
probably find, in that teacher's grade book, alongside the names, the
scores— 1 16, 113, 118, 111, 115, like that —making it about a B class at GW.
Come report-card time the teacher will be worrying about so-and-so whose
IQ is at the bottom of her point spread and yet is doing a work. Like a
gambler worrying about his own point spread when it doesn't work out, she
may suspect a fix. In her class the 1 19's should be making A's, and the ill's
should do C work. It's a comfort, I suppose, that surprisingly often these
grade and IQ ratios worked out just right and no one had to worry about it.
The administration knows all of this too, of course. In fact, it is from the
administrators that the teacher learns to disparage the scores. This may be
the answer to the teacher part of the mystery. It is the kind of subject
teachers quote administrators on, but rarely act upon unless forced to,
because they know really that the administrator, whatever else he may be,
isn't a teacher, doesn't give out grades, doesn't deal with thirty or forty kids
at a time, so once you get in the classroom that administration talk doesn't
count. What you need is something to back you up if you're in trouble, and
perhaps the scores will do it.
But what about the administration, then? There are, of course, some quite
good arguments for homogeneous grouping by ability, supposing you can
get a valid way to discover this ability in the first place. (There are some
equally good ones against any kind of ability grouping too, I should add.) It
doesn't seem unreasonable, though, for an administrator, somewhat
sophisticated about testing, to want to take his school population and divide
it up into a couple of categories, calling them privately X and Y, or Giants,
Yankees and Dodgers if he likes. But for an administrator (knowledgeable
and sophisticated) to administer these tests in large groups to the population
of GW and from the results to carve himself out eight different ability
groups, and to separate them in different classrooms and call them A to H,
seemed to me incredible.
Consider the likely range of total scores involved. I'll place the cutoff point
in IQ scores at 75. Below that and it's down in the basement. (This point
varies; I seem to remember it was actually 79, but I can't be sure.) For the
highs, let's say 135; there isn't any large group of students above that level in
any school, and in any case it’s not significant because the A group includes
the greatest range of scores, being everything above a certain point.
So that at best you have a total of 60 points to be divided by eight, giving
each division a range of 7.5 points! In practice, given the much larger point
spread of the A-group kids, the division included a smaller range of points—
5.5 to 6 points each.
But the administration has just been telling us at the faculty meeting-
subject: testing— that 7.5 points is meaningless in group testing as a standard
by which to judge individual ability! The traveling psychologist is brought in
from downtown to give us all the reasons I've mentioned and more besides.
He's very convincing. A resource person from State adds his sociological
piece about environment and social conditions, without mentioning, of
course, The Word. (We teachers, black and white, stare into space and don't
mention it either.) All right so why the A to H, then? What the hell?
They were making it difficult, as I say. Had all these people said, Look,
now, every IQ point counts and is significant, the 111 kid is exactly one
point smarter than the 110 kid, and don't forget it, then the grouping would
have made some sense, and I could have gone on in the room— and let the
school run on and classify itself— without thinking about it. I suppose what I
mean here is that I wasn't planning on coming into the school in order to
disagree with the district or the administration on matters of policy and make
a fuss about it. I wasn't interested enough in the district to do that. A nice,
straightforward, lousy, wrong policy would have been fine with me.
Instead I kept wondering, so why the A to H? There didn't seem to be any
kind of answer. No one asks the question, naturally. The lecture at the
faculty meeting with the psychologist is one thing; running the school in real
life is another. Both are valid, we all feel, but somehow the two just aren't
There is no explanation either for odd events within the A-to-H scheme:
why Virgil, who was in my H class, was one of the brightest kids I ever saw,
or why John Banks, who couldn't read and might therefore be expected to
have a little trouble with the tests, was in my B class and raising hell to boot.
This is, of course, a different matter; however, since neither of them was
around for very long, perhaps no one was required to give any answer.
6. The Two B Classes
The coach was right. The first days really determined what I would be
doing the rest of the year. Among other things it was made oddly clear that I
would be spending relatively little of my time and energy on my two "best"
classes, part of the elite of GW, my seventh and eighth grade B classes.
These two B groups were alike in a number of ways. They were of course
alike in that they— the kids in them had all scored within a few points of each
other in the tests. But also, the individual kids within the groups looked
alike— that is, the seventh-graders mostly looked as if they were about twelve
years old and belonged in the seventh grade; they were about the same size,
given the usual "big girls" and "immature boys"; they were normal, the big
girls running everything and the little boys constantly in some kind of mild,
disorganized trouble and wondering what those big girls were up to anyway.
They were a class, recognizable as such. They acted like a class, they knew
the routines of class; they came in and sat down, say, and waited to be asked
to do something, talk, read, write, figure, answer questions, fill out forms on
request, carry books, shut up. They might on occasion fail or refuse to do
any or all of these things, but they expected them. They were with it.
Although my experience with the two B groups was completely different,
this difference remained within the range of normal expectation. Briefly, the
difference consisted in the fact that, whereas the seventh-graders were
generally well-behaved, alert, somewhat studious, responsible, punctual,
neat, got good grades and answered respectfully and politely, the eighth-
graders were inattentive, resented assignments, did little unless threatened,
whined about bad grades, never had pencils or notebooks or books, invented
excuses to push themselves into an uproar, disliked school and teachers, me
included, wised-off, were tardy, hypochondria-cal before tests, and
considered themselves picked on. If 7B was what all teachers call a good
class, 8B was the prototype of bad.
Still, they were reasonable classes. If 8B was hard to deal with, you could
think of reasons for it. Eighth-graders are a year older than seventh-graders—
at that age, it means a lot. Seventh-graders are the youngest in the school and
are apt to be fearful, polite and even ambitious. Eighth-graders, having
learned the ropes, generally tend to be none of these. They are more
interested in each other, having given up at least temporarily on the rest of
the world, which they can see is adult and phony.
Beyond that, it's quite possible that these particular eighth-graders had
crossed another borderline besides that of puberty— crossed over to where I
was a white teacher and they were colored kids living in a Negro ghetto in a
town full of Okies, restricted trade unions and middle-class liberal whites
who lived in segregated neighborhoods on the tops of hills— a ghetto from
which the roads out lead only to places like Chicago's South Side. However
it was, and I don't really know how it was, my experience with 8B was bad
from beginning to end. They remained for me a shallow, deceitful and
uninteresting group who cordially disliked me and whom I grew to dislike in
turn. 7B, on the other hand, I admired more and more. I had them twice a
day, and looked forward to seeing them. Yet, it’s true that although I liked
and enjoyed them, they came to mean most importantly a respite, a breathing
space, an armistice. That wasn't all they were, but it was mainly what they
It was simply that, on that first day, neither B class offered to become
crucial enough, in the way that things at GW could become crucial. 8B was
not bad or bored enough to worry me. I concentrated on keeping them in a
semblance of order and schoolwork, and they concentrated on misbehaving
and panicking just enough so there would be a minimum of order and
schoolwork, but carefully short of getting themselves into any real trouble.
None of them were real to me, with the exception of Ruth, whom I didn't
consider as one of the class but just as Ruth. The class itself took advantage
of her, not considering her as a member either but as someone who would do
everything they were afraid to do, and using her actions as an excuse to
laugh, yell, complain about unfairness and avoid assignments.
7B and 8B, all within five points of each other on the scores, one year
apart, one good, one bad, both B. You won't read much more about them as
groups— they'll only be mentioned, I imagine, from now on in terms of Ruth
or John Banks or Opal Jameson, for the fact is that in terms of the school
year and of this writing they weren't matters of life or death.
It's not their fault; it's not mine either. Whose fault is it? For that answer I
leave you to your Time magazines, your Dissents, your sociology texts,
your NAACP's, your Open Ends, your Muslims, CORE'S, Education
Departments— to all your interpretations, whatever they are.
7. Roll Call with 9D, 7H
9D and 7H were unreasonable. That first morning, finished with my nice
seventh-graders and my second (free) period coffee, I climbed back upstairs.
With the bell, 9D began to mosey into class. The excitement of the first day
was all gone now; they remembered all about it and were already bored. Still
everyone perked up as I began to call the roll; here was something everyone
could do and at the same time impart a little individuality to his answer by
intonation, hesitation or volume. I called off the names and everyone
laughed at my pronunciation, the answering here’s, yeah's and uh-huh’s. We
were all nervous. I went down the list.
Leon LaTour? I called out. No answer. LaTour here? I tried again,
pronouncing it like "sure."
Silence. I tried once more and a tall kid in the back got up. He stood for a
moment looking at me. Finally he said, Tore.
Tore. Leon LaTore. You ain't saying it right. Oooooh? went the class.
Why? I wondered. He hadn't done anything. Perhaps they knew he was just
getting started. I waited, but nothing else happened. OK LaTore, I said, and
went on with the names.
After the roll call, I wasn't quite sure what to do. I had nothing in particular
planned, but had counted on the class to give me a hint, to indicate in some
way what it was they wanted or expected. With 7B this had worked perfectly
well. True, they had squabbled a little over the pencils and hadn't been able
to restrain themselves from crowding around when books were passed out—
as far as I could see, every student in the school suspected a permanent
shortage of all materials —but they had soon settled down and pretty soon
some kid asked what we were going to do, and we went on to talk
reasonably about words like "social" and "society.
9D offered no clues. When I finished calling out the names, they waited
passively for me to present them with some other challenge. Waiting for
them to do the same, I busied myself at the desk with slips of paper, book
cards, lists of names. 9D, seeing that I was leaving them alone, began to
arrange themselves and get acquainted. They were fairly quiet, and,
alphabetizing some cards, I actually forgot about them for a moment.
We had a long library table at the back of the room, in addition to the
desk-chairs which stood bolted to the floor in rows. My own desk was in the
front facing the rows, with a blackboard behind me and another on the wall
to my left. The outside windows were to my right. I looked up and began
watching the class. They were a sight. In the space of a few minutes they had
forgotten that this was a class and that school was taking place. I had given
them too a free gift, and they were making use of it. Perhaps they only pre
tended that this wasn't school, hopeful of keeping it up as long as possible
until forced to do otherwise. However it was, they did it well; I felt oddly
immobilized, and as if I shouldn't interfere. They were comfortable.
Most of the girls had taken out cosmetics, which they were applying. The
boys were talking, laughing, mimicking the girls, showing off new jackets
and shoes. Some kids were wandering around the room finding suitable
places to spend the year. Three girls detached themselves from the group
entirely and went back to sit at the long table where they had plenty of room
to spread out purses, cosmetics, mirrors and combs. These were the Three
C's, as we all later called them, Charlene, Connie and Cerise, and they were
the prettiest and whitest girls in the class. Cerise especially had long, wavy
(not curly) hair which hung around her shoulders, not blonde of course but
brown anyway. The other two had shorter, but still soft and wavy, hair. They
were light-colored; their lipstick and eye shadow showed up clearly. They
sat at the table surrounded by tubes and jars and dared the boys to come
over. The boys made plenty of smart remarks, but none came over then.
I kept watching the class. Remember how I said that, whatever else, the
kids in 7B and 8B looked alike? Appeared to belong at least in the same
room together? 9D hadn't this quality. At the time I would have
conservatively estimated their ages to be anywhere from twelve or so (six
small, extremely black little boys punching each other belligerently in the
middle of the room) through eighteen or twenty (the Three C's and a couple
of other girls and Leon LaTore, for example) to about thirty. I say this
extraordinary thirty because of another trio, Josephine, Geraldine and May.
They were three large, heavy women, big-breasted, medium-dark-skinned,
hair plastered tight to their skulls, sitting stolidly and disapprovingly at the
too-small desks as if planning never to arise. All three wore print dresses
such as you imagine ladies wearing to picnics in Iowa. I expected them to
start knitting something. I didn't know at the time what it was they
disapproved of, but certainly if I had met them in, say, a bus station, I would
have believed them to be thirty-year-old mothers of children and treated
them accordingly. As a matter of fact, the records called all the kids in 9D
fifteen years old, just as they should be, with the exception, as I recall, of
one or two who were sixteen.
We didn't do anything else for the rest of the period. I didn't feel like
interrupting them, and it was clear they were not going to give me a start. I
thought I'd better try to figure them out; they had no unity that I could see,
they were at loose ends ... I had the sudden realization that I was going to be
with them every day for about ten months. Near the end of the period I got
up and announced that books would be given out tomorrow and we would
start work. No one paid any attention, the bell rang, 9D wandered on out and
I went down to lunch. I was not displeased with myself; I thought the day
had gone pretty well. After lunch I had 7B again for English, then 8B and
the no-trouble period with Ruth and, last period of all, I awaited 7H. I didn't
have to wait long,
7H came charging and whooping up the stairs from where they had been
studying mathematics with Mr. Brooks. Later I came to recognize their
particular cries coming up my way. There's Roy, I'd think, there Harvey,
there Vincent, Alexandra, picking their sounds out of the general outcry of
the student body with a mixture of admiration and dread. 7H dashed in,
flung themselves into seats and as quickly hung themselves out again. If 9D
was willing to ignore me until doomsday, 7H didn't. They scattered from
seat to seat, each trying to get as much free territory around him as possible,
jumping up again as the area got over-crowded and ranging out to look for
breathing space like Daniel Boone. From the seats, wherever they were, they
confronted me with urgent and shouted questions, each kid, from his claim
of several empty desks, demanding my complete attention to him: Are you a
strict teacher? You going to make us write? When do we get to go home?
Where our books? Our pencils? Paper? You going to give us them spellers?
They were all funnily out shouted by Roy, a boy about five feet six or
seven inches tall with tremendous shoulders and arms, who stood in front of
my desk, obscuring the view for all the rest, and just laughed as loud as he
could for perhaps two minutes. Then he stopped and told everyone to shut
up, because he knew this teacher wanted to take the roll. After some more
shouting I finally did call it, listed the names of those absent on absence slips
and clipped them to the wall over the door where a monitor from the once
was to pick them up. I went back to my desk, wondered if I ought to pass out
pencils (I'd learned something), thought a bit about books, and decided to
give out some spellers.
At that moment there came a tremendous outcry from over by the door. I
looked over and three or four kids were standing there, looking up at the
door and yelling their heads off. Naturally the rest of the class soon began
shouting insults at them, without any idea of what the trouble was. Everyone
was standing up; calls of "watermelon-head!" filled the room. The kids by
the door wheeled and rushed up to me, furious and indignant. Vincent, who
was one of them, was crying. What the hell? I began to yell in turn for
everyone to shut up, which they soon did, not from the effect of my order
but out of a desire to find out what was the matter; they sat back to hear the
story. The four were Boy, Harvey, Vincent and Alexandra, and what they
demanded to know was why had I put their names up there on those absence
slips? They weren't absent! Was I trying to get them into trouble? We here,
Mr. Herndon! They didn't want to get in no trouble! Alexandra began to
threaten me with her mama. Roy, tempted beyond his own indignation,
began to make remarks about the color and hair quality of Alexandra's
mama. It shows how upset Alexandra was; it was fatal to ever mention
your mother at GW, which Alexandra of all kids knew quite well.
For a moment I thought maybe I had put the wrong names up by mistake,
but I checked them and saw that wasn't so. I displayed the slips, spread out
on my desk. Their names weren't there. The names on those slips were not
theirs, I told them. Right? They weren't satisfied. They demanded a closer
look at them slips. I handed the slips around, whereupon it became a scene
out of some old movie when Stepin Fetchit turns the letter upside down and
sideways before giving it to Bob Hope to read, explaining he doesn't read
Chinese. The fact was, Harvey, Boy, Vincent and Alexandra were having a
little trouble reading their own names.
Finally Alexandra let out a screech and started for the back of the room,
where a little tiny kid, black and scrawny, jumped smoothly out of her way,
grinning at her, holding onto a desk in front of him ready to jump again.
Alexandra was demanding something from him; she was joined by Roy et
al; and I finally made out that they were calling on him to verify my
statement about their names and the slips. He wasn't doing that, apparently,
so they all rushed back to me. All four now shouted that Virgil had told them
their names were up there on them slips and they were getting into trouble
for cutting school. The first day ! The class began to hoot all over again. I
started for Virgil, who left his chair and sped over by the windows.
I sped after him. Whooo-eee ! Everything was great ! Right away I saw I
wasn't about to catch Virgil— I'd had some idea about making him recant in
public— and stopped. Virgil promptly dashed out the door.
Just about then the monitor came along for the slips and I collected them
and handed them over. The four kids still stood there. Were they in trouble
or weren't they? They didn't know for sure, but probably they did know what
they were up against here all of a sudden, just as I suddenly knew what I was
going to be up against. As the monitor was leaving, a water bomb made
from a folded sheet of school paper came flying through the open transom
and exploded on the door in the front of the room.
After school I hurried out to the nearest bar to have a beer and think it
over. Things weren't the same as they had been this morning, or even at
noon. There was Roy, a broad-shouldered, thick-chested man of thirteen
largely out of control, probably stronger than I. Vincent, a little kid, worried,
thin, wore a sports coat and a tie for the first day of school. Harvey looked
like a country boy, wearing jeans, a light jacket, high work shoes; it wasn't
just his clothes, though, it was the way he walked— steady, serious, trying to
puzzle it out, willing to, but no go. Alexandra— dark, handsome, proud,
mean, bitter, able to whip any boy in the class except Boy— in looks and
temperament a gypsy.
Their situation was simply that they couldn't read their own names when I
wrote them on the slips. So that when Virgil told them I'd turned them in,
they didn't have any way at all to find out if it was true or not. They had to
believe it, at first anyway. They knew, somehow, that Virgil could read, and
that was all the certainty they had to go on. Next they could ask me. Could I
be trusted? After all, Virgil just told them I was trying to get them into
trouble (and Virgil could read) and so it was only logical that I would lie
about it. If Virgil was right, I couldn't be believed. But what about Virgil?
There they were again, back to the simple fact that they couldn't tell their
own names from anyone else’s, and this was to be their situation every day
and every period of the year.
But what about Virgil? Here was a kid who was not only mean enough but
smart enough to figure out this foolproof method of driving four other kids
nuts on the very first day of school, and who was also prepared in advance-
for he hadn't had time to construct it out there in the hall— with a water bomb
to throw in through the transom when he ran out ... when I chased him out,
as he said the next day by way of excusing his illegal departure.
I couldn't help it. I went down the next day before class and looked up old
Virgil’s IQ. It happened to be, at last testing, 138. 1 was going to ask one of
the counselors just what he was doing in group H, but while I waited for
them to show up I read farther down the card. After a lot of written
comments like ’"troublemaker" and "adjustment difficulty to classroom
situation" and a couple of referral dates to Juvenile Hall, I found the letter H,
followed by the words Teacher Recommendation.
A few words for 7B. I've already said that they were attentive and
responsible, but they were a lot more than that. With them I was able to
make a start toward working things out for myself, what I actually wanted to
teach, how to do it, how to approach things in a way that might mean
something to all of us. For instance, whatever I read during this time, the fall
of the year, seemed to lead me into some idea for the classroom and I would
come charging in with the idea, usually half-baked, to try it out on them.
They would respond as enthusiastically as they could, sometimes while
utterly confused, often just humoring me awhile and passing out subtle hints
for me to come to my senses. But with them the pressure was always off— I
was free and easy. In effect, they allowed me to teach myself.
I often wondered how they got along outside my classroom. In the world
of and around GW, most of the kids were scared— scared of failure, scared of
being black, scared of their new shoes, scared of tearing their clothes, scared
of not knowing how to do right, scared of not getting a pencil or a piece of
three-hole lined paper upon which they would be too scared to write
anything much if they got it. Perhaps the students of 7B fell back, outside
the classroom, as individuals, into this scariness and became apathetic or
violent or ugly, or called each other watermelon-head I really don't know. It
seemed as if in the classroom they had found something reasonable to
respond to, as often an individual kid will find in school some promise
which is kept, something sensible or even beautiful, something not available
in their homes or families or in their blocks, and so come to live really only
at school, even sometimes to love it and find in it the same joy and despair
as any lover.
Perhaps that's too much said. The kids of 7B, by and large, found
solidarity in their classroom; they had it, they accepted it. They were also,
without any question, my solidarity. In this connection I'd like to mention
the names of Ramona Williams and Hazel Lopez, the unofficial and real
leaders of 7B and examples to their classmates; they were two of the
loveliest little girls I've ever known, and I could always count on them.
I determined to pass out English books and spellers to 9D, to make
everything official, and get down to work. The main work, I'd decided, was
going to be composition, freely done and at length. With a lot of written
material on hand, theirs— in which, having written it themselves, they were
bound to be interested— we could later get down to making some corrections,
show up some common faults, use the books to find practical standards for
usage and punctuation. The spellers I'd use for regularity; they weren't much
good, being just lists of words and a number of rather silly things to do with
those words, but I thought we'd do them anyway, half the period twice a
week perhaps. They were simple enough and it would be a kind of breather
9D, however, having received the free gift, wasn't about to let go of it as
easy as that. It's true they scrambled around for the books and spellers, but
they quickly withdrew into a more dignified aloofness as soon as it became
clear there were enough to go around, which was only when every single
person had one of each. Cosmetics came out, kids got up and began
searching for new places to sit, a boy took out a transistor radio, the C's
withdrew to the back table. I passed out paper; I began to talk about what we
were going to do. Cosmetics and conversation continued— not loudly or
aggressively, but just as if I weren't addressing them. I began to insist on
everyone's attention. Perhaps ten kids had their backs to me by now. I called
kids by name, requiring their attention. They began to resent it. Finally a
voice said, Teacher, why don't you let us alone?
That stopped it. Ooooooh? they all went. The speaker was Verna, a tall,
lanky girl, brown, lithe and strong-looking, plain-faced, kinky-haired,
without makeup. She was making a stand. The tone of the class implied
apprehension and excitement: I was now going to throw Verna out. Actually
I didn't give a damn. Verna and I had everyone's attention; the others had
momentarily lost. Verna had to say something, if only to get the last word
before being thrown out. I expected an outburst, but instead she said, You
should have made us get to work yesterday. All the other teachers made us
get to work. If you want us to do work, why didn't you make us yesterday?
She stopped talking and immediately turned around, her back toward me.
The class rallied to her support by taking up their conversations where they
had left off. Now I was losing. I got ready to start insisting again, wondering
what I was going to say if and when they started listening.
Then the door swung open, and a kid walked in, came over and handed me
a slip and found a seat near the back of the room. The class turned around
and conversed in a different key. The subject was the newcomer, Maurice,
particularly the fact that he had just gotten out of Juvenile Hall in time to
make the second day of school. Teacher, Maurice just back from Juvi!
shouted out somebody, so I didn't have any trouble finding out. Maurice
himself was subdued and quiet, having been warned, I suppose, to be nice or
find himself right back in Juvi. But I was winning again; they were so
curious about what I was going to say to Maurice about Juvi that they had to
recognize me, just to make sure I knew about it. I passed a book and a
speller down the row to Maurice. You supposed to report to the parole
officer about Maurice, teacher! How he do, if he do his work! Do he get in
trouble or fighting! ... I began to get advice from all sides.
Well, now, I said, actually this is not a class about Juvi, but about English.
Whooo-eee! That broke them up. But when they stopped laughing they were
attentive enough. I began to talk about how English meant using the
language however they wanted; I was well into my speech about figuring out
together what was relatively interesting to do and then figuring out how to
do it— which was, naturally, crap since I already had the business of
composition in mind and how we were going to go about it— and they were
just beginning to get bored (they knew it was crap too), seeing as how I
wasn't going to either lecture Maurice about Crime Not Paying or say
anything humorous again, when bang ! Maurice and another boy, locked in
each other's arms, fell over their desks and across the desks of the next row
and lay there stretched out, struggling. Books, papers and kids scattered.
Hell! Whoooo-eee! I got over there. Silence. Let go! Both of you! I shouted,
but nothing happened. Maurice was on top, the other kid across a desk, and
as I got there Maurice loosed an arm and belted the other kid in the face. Cut
it out! I grabbed Maurice. He didn't come. The kid on the bottom let go, but
Maurice didn't. I tugged him rather gently. He belted the kid again. I got
mad, grabbed Maurice under the arms and heaved as hard as I could.
Maurice flew backward over the row of desks and landed with a crash on the
next row. He landed plenty hard; I imagine it hurt, and also he must have
thought it was all up with him, back to Juvi. He was frantic and mad. He
jumped up and started for me. I stood there; he stopped and stood there. He
glared. Everybody was scared. No one in the class looked forward, suddenly,
to what was going to happen, which was that Maurice was going to come for
me and hit me or I him; the end would be the speedy return of Maurice to
Juvenile Hall, beaten up by me previously or not. It was inevitable.
We stood there quite a few seconds and then I nodded, turned and walked
swiftly back to my desk and sat down. I hoped I was implying a mutual
cease-fire among equals. When I turned around toward the class, Maurice
had likewise retreated and was sitting at his desk. We carefully didn't look
right at each other, but still in the same general direction, so as not to be
accused of avoiding anything either. Maurice had seen the issue— I'd say we
saw it exactly alike. We both had something at stake, and he cooperated
perfectly. It was like a play, or an improvisation, which came off just right.
We were winning.
The class was dumbfounded. They waited, disappointed but certainly
somewhat relieved. Students at GW courted disaster; that doesn't mean they
liked it. They didn't believe the action was over. They knew better. So they
were all attention when I got ready to say something considering the last
thing I'd said about Juvi, they had high hopes. Instead I said, All right I
guess we can start class work. The first English assignment is to write a
story about what just happened. You can begin writing now, finish it tonight,
and have it ready for tomorrow's class.
Whatever they'd expected, that wasn't it. It suddenly seemed like a lousy
idea to me, and I decided to admit it and do something else, but before I
could Verna said Shhh! loudly and turned around in her seat so her back was
to me. The class woke up at that signal and began to yell demands and
questions at me. All of a sudden they were just like 7H.
What to write! How we spozed to write without no paper! That ain't no
schoolwork, teacher! You can't make us write about that! I ain’t got no
pencil! You trying to get us into trouble! No pen! No paper! What to write!
What to do !
Panic. Instead of the moral lecture they expected to enjoy from an
indignant teacher, here I was making them supply the lecture themselves.
Everything was going wrong. Quiet! I yelled a few times. That was more
like it, and everyone subsided. Thirty-year-old May raised her hand placidly.
I called on her gratefully, but she said, Teacher, why don’t we do our
spellers? I got furious at once. Spellers? I was proposing to write seriously
about this exciting event and she wanted instead to put a silly list of words in
alphabetical order or backward according to last letter, or whatever it was for
Unit 1 in the goddamn speller! You teaching this class or am I? I snapped at
her. Whooooeee! He sure cut down old May! By now I was determined on
the assignment again,
What’s the problem? I asked the class. Things happened in here today. All
I’m asking you to do is to write about it. Why don’t you get started?
What to write? everyone started asking again. Quiet! I shouted at once. A
series of sarcastic questions tempted me. You were here, weren’t you?
Right? You have eyes? Right? You all have ears? OK. Now think about
what happened in this same room, describe it, tell it to yourself, remember it,
and then write it down. Never mind the spelling for now, never mind ink,
just write it down however you can. That’s all!
Shhh— loudly again. This time not from Verna, but from Leon LaTore in
the back. No one ever said shit at GW, only shhh! or, to express extreme
disgust, sheee! Shhh! said Leon LaTore, nobody going to write that. He was
addressing the class, not me. He just want to pin it on somebody. He want to
find out about it. He want to pull you in on it!
Twenty-five protestations of innocence and as many accusations and
counter-accusations followed that. Linally people's mamas began to be
mentioned, and I had to yell Quiet! again. Well, what if I do want to know?
I yelled. Do you know? Something started it, didn't it? Here's Maurice
pounding on somebody, on Lletcher there, all of a sudden. Do you think he
wanted to? So who did start it, then?
Accusations, etc. Leon LaTore grinned in the back. Finally Verna jumped
up and yelled, Flush up, you all ! Sit down, big-leg ! came an unidentified
voice. Forget you! said Verna coldly, and everybody hushed. You don't have
to get all shook up, said Verna. She was-talking to me. Everybody know
who start it. Robert he took hold of Maurice's notebook while Maurice
writing on them cards you give him for the books, and slip it over onto
Fletcher's desk, and Maurice look up and find it gone and then he see it on
Fletcher's desk and grab it, but Fletcher don't know it Maurice's because he
didn't see that Robert put it there so he grab it back and there they go. No
one denied it. Robert was out of his seat and backed up in the corner of the
room like John Dillinger facing the FBI. He looked like an authentic four-
teen-year-old, small, stocky, black. Sit down, Robert, I said. Oooooh? went
the class softly. Shhh! said Leon LaTore. Verna wasn't convinced. Ain't you
sending Robert to the office, teacher? she said flatly.
I was tired of the whole thing. Property. Your mama. It seemed likely that
at the moment Robert was slipping Maurice's notebook over, every other kid
in the class was grabbing, poking, pushing or pulling at some piece of
someone else's stuff. I told them so. Robert waited warily in the corner. Sit
down, Robert, I said again. I looked at the clock; there were only about five
minutes left. OK, I said, now go on and write the assignment, now we all
know all about it.
Actually no one wrote the assignment; no one, that is, except for Maurice,
who perhaps figured he'd better. No one remembered it the next day; all
denied any knowledge of its being assigned. I read Maurice's
"Composition," as it was entitled: A boy took another boy('s) (notebook) in
the class and so the boy jump(ed) him to beat (him) the teacher broke it up
But the teacher didn't send the boys to the office. (Corrections mine.)
10. Another Apology
This apology, which is to the reader, is for the end of violence. One kid
flipped over the desks, a brief facing-up, that was all. No switchblades, zip
guns, chains, brass knuckles, razors. It would have been interesting and fun
to write about myself as a kind of sheriff-teacher continually fighting it out
with outlaw-students-Po w ! Got him! Take that! etc.— and as a matter of fact
it might have made working at GW rather exciting. I don't mind a bit of
violence myself, and many's the fantasy I had that year, lying awake while I
let Leon LaTore or John Banks have it right in the mouth!
The only other incident was a little slugging— which, unfortunately for
everyone, didn't involve the students but myself. That is, it involved the
student only as object, and I would have given a lot right then to take it back.
So much for the relationship of fantasy to George Washington Junior High.
I'm not even eager to write about it, but then it doesn't come up for quite a
But outside of that, no more violence for me, not even come springtime.
You have to remember that these students are really children— seventh grade
to ninth grade, ages twelve to thirteen, thirteen to fourteen, and fourteen to
fifteen, all this talk about eighteen-year-olds and thirty-year-olds
notwithstanding. Maybe they had switchblades and zip guns somewhere, but
they weren't in evidence in my classes. Obviously 7B didn't need them. 8B
was too chicken. 7H and 9D were the only real possibilities for that kind of
action, but there we didn't have the time for it. From the very start we were
too busy being intellectuals.
11. .025, or 97.5 percent
Ninety-eight percent Negro was how GW was described downtown. One
day I figured out how I stood. I had 35 kids in 7B, 32 in 8B, 28 in 9D and 26
in 7H. In the latter two I never had a full class or even close to it— they were
gone, somewhere, just not present. Occasionally I would be notified that So-
and-so wouldn't be showing up for ten days or two weeks, and often the kids
would tell me what happened. Juvi moved, went to live with So-and-so,
ringworm, had to baby-sit. In any case, taking the registered number, which
was what the downtown average was based upon, I had all together 121
students. Of these all but two were Negro.
The two weren't white exactly; they were Japanese. No one knew what to
make of the Oriental students at GW; were they white or black? Neither?
Then what to do? Being neither one, you were simply out of it and didn't
count, no matter what the downtown figures said. My two weren't
outstanding— the thing is, they were both in 8B, which bothered me in my
percentages. Didn't that make 8B high on the non-Negro side
proportionally? And aren't the rest of them 100-percent black? Well, I
consigned them to a general margin for chance along with my other non-
Negro who came along later in the year. Counting her, that made three out of
121, for a percentage of .025 white or not Negro, and 97.5 percent colored,
Negro or black. I had to admit that made me about even and there was no
discrimination in evidence.
I’ve already said that the first days established everything. I've said that
between 8B and me there existed no real relationship— we were just getting
through the year. I've implied that between 9D and 7H and me there was, or
was going to be, something going on. I’ve mentioned Maurice and John
When Maurice and I acted out our parts that day, I was established in a
certain way, part, role. No doubt I could have changed it, but I didn't want
to. What was established was that whatever went on in the class was to be
kept to ourselves, that I wasn't sending them to the office or writing notes
about them to the counselors if they messed up. During the year, in fact, I
did send plenty of them to the office, but I didn't send them, and they knew I
wouldn't send them, for anything serious or crucial. I sent them for chewing
gum or not staying in their seats— when I was mad or irritated or had just had
enough of them, sometimes for very little reason at all— and of course very
little happened to them in consequence. I was satisfied with the part because
it was the only way I could ever know what they really would do in class
themselves, wanted to do, desired. It seemed to me that any kind of halfway
measure or bargaining would be useless with them. Either you weren't going
to threaten them or you were going to, and if you did then you could never
tell at all how they really felt; they would always be reacting (which is
different) to what I thought, wanted, as they saw it. At the time I thought that
was very important.
About a week after school opened, John Banks entered 8B. He came in
without any notice or pass or excuse, no sign of official recognition. He
entered the room after everyone else had sat down, walked around, spoke a
word here and there, patted some girls and drew from them shrieks and
giggles. I decided to get a little recognition myself and asked his name. John.
More wandering, past my desk; I risked another inquiry. Could I see his slip
from the attendance office! No comment. John Banks crazy as hell, teacher?
came Ruth's voice from her seat. You come near me, John Banks, I'll hit you
with this chair! John Banks didn't swerve, stop or notice, just breezed past
Ruth and only his hand came up to slide, wave, casually past her face. Now
what? Nothing was going to happen in class until this was settled, I could
see that, so on the next go-round, I stepped in front of him. He took no
notice, only moved with the same careless stroll as if to just go around me,
an obstacle, a desk perhaps, which happened to get in the way. He didn't feel
like moving the desk, me, out of the way at the moment. He was an
ordinary-looking kid, not tall or short, slim, brown, strong-looking. John
Banks cold! said someone admiringly from the class. As he moved around
me I put out an arm. Wait a second, I said, you're supposed to have an admit
slip— he moved back to go around the other way— telling me you belong in
this class. He was slipping past when I stuck out the other arm. Hold it, I
said again. He never stayed still, dodging slowly around the other way
again, his eyes moving past mine, looking at nothing at any time, saying I
have to hold it, you in the way. What was the class doing all this time?
Banks! I said sharply. Make up your mind: either get in a chair or get out!
I was pretty scared of him. Later on I could remember that he was only a
fourteen-year-old kid after all, but unfortunately I remained scared of him.
Well, he did sit down, more or less falling back into a desk. His hands and
eyes continued to wander. When I asked him for his pass, he poked the kids
in front and around him, not hard or violently, but just a touch on the
shoulder of one, an easy shove on the neck of another, while the kid behind
him found his pencil rolling off the desk. These kids all made outcry. I gave
up on him, as I had to. He'd made the one concession he was going to make
in sitting down, but he didn't figure he had to answer me or write on the
book cards I gave him or even accept the books, which somehow fell off
onto the floor. Pick them up, please ! He picked them up, and they
mysteriously slid off again. Outcries from surrounding kids, and from Ruth
on the other side of the room: John Banks stay in this class I have to kill
him! We went on with whatever lesson it was, but not really. Not even 8B's
usual pretense of academic eagerness was -present. Everyone watched John
Banks out of the corner of his eye— no one followed instructions or knew the
place or heard his own name when called. When the class left at the bell,
John Banks's books remained behind on the floor.
So the next day when 8B came in and John Banks repeated the
performance, wandering, ordered to sit, sitting, poking, etc., I wrote out a
slip, said OK, John, and sent him to the office. He left the room without a
He won't go to the office, teacher, shouted the kids. They were disgusted
with me. You spozed to send some other kid down there with that slip and
then after the other kid get back, then you send John Banks! But that advice
got argument too. Who going with the slip, bigmouth? said someone. It
became clear that no one wanted to take a slip down on John Banks. They
argued about it awhile.
He went though. In about fifteen minutes back he came, escorted by Miss
Bentley. The class fell silent. She was a changed woman; stiff, cold,
commanding, indescribably mean-looking. We all felt guilty; it was our fault
that John Banks was misbehaving— that was her word for what John Banks
had been doing. John has been misbehaving in class, he tells me, she said,
looking around the room. He has promised to behave and to waste no more
of your time, Mr. Herndon's time, or his own time. Sit down, John, she
added, and he walked up a row toward the back of the room. As he got there,
he began to recover a bit, began to saunter, reached out a hand for a girl's
hair, grinned. John, said Miss Bentley sharply, where is your seat? He
shrugged. I ain't got no particular seat in this class, Miss Bentley, he said.
She glanced at me. Now I was guilty. Take the third seat in row five. Right
there. She pointed. John went over to it and sat down. She looked over the
class again, looked at me, and left.
Well, I only bring up John Banks to show that it was probably just luck
that established the relationships and roles in my classes; the difference
between one class and another, between something happening and nothing
happening, may turn out to be simply the difference between John Banks
and Maurice. At GW you are more likely to get John Banks than Maurice.
Not that many kids are in the same shape as John Banks under ordinary
circumstances, but given the kind of thing that happened to Maurice only a
few hours after coming out of Juvenile Hall, I think 90 percent of the kids at
GW would have acted in some way like John. Why not Maurice? I don't
know; he wanted badly enough to get through the day, the year perhaps, and
had brains enough to see how to do it. John Banks didn't want that or, like
most of the kids there, didn't believe in it and was settling for some thing
else more immediate or possible.
It was Ruth, by the way, who told me he couldn't read or write, and later,
in a meeting about him with counselors and other teachers, it turned out to
be true. Anyway, his behavior, as they say, didn't improve or change. Miss
Bentley informed me, when I asked her about it later, that John Banks was
difficult to handle unless you were firm. So I would be firm and get him in
his seat, and then I'd have to be firm again and get him to stop poking So-
and-so and then firm some more to get him to pick up his books; I could see
that I was going to have to spend all period every day doing nothing but
being firm with John Banks, so I gave up on him, let him alone until things
got too bad, and then got firm or sent him out. He was apparently going to
stay there in 8B, and he was out of my league.
John Banks cold! That was about all anyone would ever say about him.
Maurice's case, in contrast, was discussed up one side and down the other by
almost everyone; who was right, who wrong, what I should have done, what
they would have done in either position-and with that as precedent, the cause
and motive and rationale of every incident was discussed in 9D right from
the start, predictions of other possibilities made and theorized about; they
were intellectuals all of a sudden.
But with John there wasn't anything to talk about. Once a kid in 8B did say
to me that it was too bad I happened to get John in my class. You know
teacher, you didn't have to have John Banks you might make out all right.
John Banks cold!
Skates was the only one who had any explanation for John Banks's
continued stay in the B group. Miss Bentley made him a bargain, he said.
She's told him he can stay in the B group as long as he behaves himself, as
long as he doesn't kill anybody or burn the school down. That's how she can
control him— she just threatens him with the basement, where he thinks he
belongs. Hell, that's the whole story. Skates, however, was full of a number
of wild tales.
Skates's classroom was right next to mine— the only one, since mine was at
the end of the building — and also he was the only teacher who lived near
me. We arranged to ride to work together, taking turns driving.
Skates was a big young guy, twenty-six or so, from Chicago, and if there
was anything he really hated it was teaching school. This goddamn lousy
job! he would shout a hundred times daily. He used to talk a lot about being
the youngest son of a- Jewish family, explaining to me what all that meant;
the older brother was making a lot of money in Chicago selling discount
mgs and so someone in the family had to start at the other end and be
professional. Professional, don't make me laugh! he’d howl, but his old
parents were happy; they had everything now, lots of dough and a
professional son besides. The only good thing about the teaching business,
according to Skates, was the Federated Teachers of America, the teachers'
union (AFL-CIO), for at least with the FTA all you had to do was to be a
lousy, stinking teacher in a lousy, stinking job. You didn't have to go on and
be a dirty, finking, scabbing, bootlicking, son-of-a-bitch lackey of the
reactionary, murdering administration or the petty- bourgeois parents and
their phony, rude kids.
Skates said that in Chicago the union was the terror of administrators,
superintendents and boards of education. There was none of this crap about
three-hour teachers' meetings, yard duty, extra jobs like collecting money for
pictures or yearbooks and so on. They want to have a meeting in Chicago,
it’s fine he'd say. Pay overtime! When it costs them, they pretty soon see
how important the goddamn meetings really are! In Chicago, apparently,
you got paid overtime every time you turned around, you accepted no
student beyond your maximum class load, the principal didn't say, Come on
down to my office on your free period, he asked you if you could find it
convenient to drop by anytime, and so on. It was paradise. Influenced
perhaps by this, even if I wouldn't say I actually believed it all, I joined the
FTA about the end of September. Skates was the leader of the GFV unit,
then there was myself and one other man, a plump, middle-aged Irishman.
The Irishman wasn't a bad guy, although he was full of talk about political
connections in town and liked jokes about sex and colored folk; I thought he
was being noble at first to take on the Reading Improvement class when it
was started about this time, but it turned out that the class size was limited to
fifteen and he could kick out any kids who gave him trouble. Anyway the
Irishman also belonged to the CTA (the California Teachers Association),
which Skates called a lousy, stinking company union, and almost every other
organization in the city. Later on in the year two other new teachers joined
us, both young Negro guys who were having their troubles on the job and
hoped the union would go to bat for them. We didn't have meetings
ourselves, for anything Skates wanted to say to us he could just come around
and tell us.
Our rides to and from school were full of blast and outrage. Skates was
permanently furious at almost all the normal conditions of life. Not only the
school situation, which he called feudalism, but his car— he should have
known better than to buy what he called a lousy Kraut Volkswagen! — his
apartment and land-lady, and most of all his lousy social life in this lousy
city. His chief gripe was the lack of beautiful women willing to sleep with
him, despite his many trips to the hotel tea dances, the hundreds of martinis
he paid for and the numerous girls he persuaded to enter his lousy Kraut car,
and despite also the lousy members of the lousy Jewish community whom
he expected to furnish a supply of willing females. There were a few, he
admitted, but Skates wanted nothing less than 100-per-cent success. We
discussed the details of his amours almost every morning.
He was, oddly enough, outraged at the local Negro community for not
offering him the kind of relaxation he was used to in Chicago. Where's the
whores? he wanted to know. Where's all the swinging clubs? Where are the
goddamn jitney girls? What the hell good was it to have the kind of Negro
ghetto that was inevitable under capitalism if there weren't even any jitney
girls? Who did those spades think they were? Did they think they were
living under socialism?
All this would be punctuated, if he was driving, with the most outlandish
curses at other drivers who happened to turn or change lanes or stop at stop
signs or do anything at all, legal or illegal, that forced Skates to turn the
steering wheel or touch the brake. He wanted to go in a straight line at a
constant speed without stopping at all, and nothing short of that would do.
Those drivers should all be billed! He would shove them into death camps!
Can't you drive, you f Cossack, you! he'd yell out the open window to a
startled driver. I was always expecting men to stop their cars and beat hell
out of both of us, but Skates never worried about it. Let 'em get out of their
god dam bloodsucking cars, he screamed. I’ll run right over 'em! They'll
never know what hit 'em! I’ll smash you, you criminal, he yelled to another
passing car, you lousy, peasant-murdering bastard!
I was intrigued by the idea of the jitney girls, who apparently drove up and
down the streets of the South Side in Chicago in oversized cars, picking up
men who flagged them down for a quick one. I was even more interested in
Skates's combination of a kind of exaggerated, almost comic Stalinism (it's
the only word that applies, old-fashioned as it sounds) and his open
contempt for what he must have referred to at one time as our colored
comrades as exemplified by that same Negro community and the students of
GW. He railed at the kids in class in the same way, to their great delight;
occasionally passing his room on my way to coffee, I could hear him calling
them Cossacks and finks and yelling they'd better learn to tap-dance, they
certainly weren't learning anything else. From the first, Roy called him The
14. The Tribe
Skates called our students The Tribe. Watch out today, he’d yell to me
coming down the hall for lunch, The Tribe's getting edgy! Or, Come into my
room, The Tribe's holding a talent show, tap-dancing, strippers, the whole
bit! It's a little gift from me, in appreciation they didn't eat me up last week!
Through October I seemed to spend my time talking to everyone, other
teachers, students— D's and Hs particularly, I guess— in an effort to discover...
what? Where we were, what everyone wanted, needed, a kind of late
orientation to GW. The hot weather was past, the World Series over with,
the holiday season in view. What I began to see was a set of characteristics
of The Tribe: characteristics which, indeed, I began to think were rather
clear-cut and few in number. Many things which might have seemed
definitive ended up not being so; they were traits shared by others,
elsewhere, not only of The Tribe, or else they weren't important to The
Language is an example. Excluding the use of various common epithets
applied to Negroes in America, their language and accent was all just more
or less Southern, ranging all the way from the "reckoning" and
"commencing" kind of talk to just "ah" instead of T or "er." They didn't
care for the "s" of the third person singular, and accentuated this by rarely
using auxiliaries, so that you heard, He a good man, He fight all the time,
She trying to get me in trouble. Even when they were reading aloud from a
text, nothing would convince them that that "s" at the end of a verb was in
decency pronounceable. But many Americans, I think, are attracted to
Southemisms; almost all popular singers use some variation of a Southern
accent (witness even such old, inappropriate guys as Woody Herman) so that
where there were many more common outrages against proper usage than
those mentioned, it very soon began to cease to matter. My own ear soon
heard it as normal and my own tongue came to utter it too in the end.
Poverty was not crucial either, at least not in the sense of not having food,
clothing and shelter. The Tribe didn't live in a slum. A ghetto, yes, but
driving people through the area, as a friend of mine used to do, failed always
to shock them considerably or stir them to any powerful social
consciousness. What they saw was rows of houses, not apartment buildings,
with yards, mostly wooden or stucco houses, some well-kept up, some badly
kept up, some painted, some not. No one would have thought it a rich
neighborhood, but neither did one automatically think of rats, garbage and
TB either. The rents, I should mention, were extremely high, which made it
necessary for two or three families to share these ordinary-looking houses in
many cases; this known, the aspect of the district is changed. Still, the kids
had money in their pockets for the school snack-bar food— you could tell
who had more and who had less money by whether they were eating
hamburgers or a large plate of mashed potatoes and gravy; these items were
the same price, but whereas the hamburger tasted better (and besides was
what you were spozed to eat in America), one of them didn't fill you up, you
had to have two. They also had candy, gum, potato chips, all that kind of
stuff; they had records and phonographs and could bring them to school;
they had tennis shoes and gym clothes, basketballs, bicycles, cigarettes,
cosmetics aplenty, and Japanese transistor radios. All of this wasn't scot-
free; some of these things weren't problems, but some were.
Fathers were not a thing commonly possessed by members of The Tribe,
but even that’s not so outright as it might appear. I know it’s a platitude about
what all the interpretations call the matriarchal Negro society or culture. For
one thing, it’s not unique in that respect, and for another I'm not certain how
much difference it makes. The district had figures to show that about 85
percent of the families of GW were fatherless. However, these figures were
presented to us at a teachers' meeting after school which was presided over
by someone from the Welfare Department downtown, and it was also from
the Welfare that the figures came. I remember little about the meeting itself
except that the teachers joined the Welfare in expressing their outrage about
all the county welfare money going to support certain undeserving people
from Arizona, Texas or wherever, all of whom only came to California and
specifically this very city because they knew the welfare rates were high. My
own outrage came from the fact that the meeting lasted until almost six
o'clock. The point is, families don't get much welfare money if there is some
big able-bodied dad around the place, so that it's just possible that out of all
those officially fatherless families there may have been a few who just
neglected to mention Dad at all, or forgot to report that he was out to sea or
working in San Pedro or somewhere, coming home only weekends like quite
a number of dads anywhere you go. With rents as high as they were, jobs
scarce and layoffs frequent, no one was going to miss out on that welfare
money, which was going to go for those aforementioned potato chips and
transistors. Remember, it wasn't as if they could just move to another part of
town where rents were reasonable. So the figures couldn't be trusted and
were certainly much too high. It was something like the old A-to-II
quandary again, really; I mean, the Welfare certainly knew this, and so they
knew the figures weren't accurate, but they still published the figures, still
acted on them, and in the end probably believed them officially, since, I
guess, those were the only figures they had.
It's still true, of course, that a large proportion of the families were
fatherless, or there were too many fathers, or the father didn't have a vital
say in the family, or wasn't the one on whom the family was dependent for a
salary. What difference did it make at GW? I really couldn't see that the fact
of nonexistent or non- vital dads had much to do with determining what I
came to see as the definitive characteristics of The Tribe.
I'm only talking about GW, of course, which is a school for kids aged
twelve to fifteen; at that age, girls everywhere are so far ahead of the boys
sexually, intellectually and especially in every area that demands any kind of
organization, responsibility or determination, that there is little to be seen
from a comparison on the basis of father images or the lack of them.
Language, poverty, matriarchy— three platitudes about Negroes which,
added together, didn't define The Tribe. Parts of each would enter into any
descriptive account, of course. From language, their use of words which
other American teen-agers don't commonly use in the classroom, although
outside of it they use them freely enough among themselves. The Tribe
swore constantly and as a matter of course. The aforementioned Sh!
prefaced most remarks; hell, damn, ass (as in whip your ass), son-of-a-bitch,
bitch, f — , were ordinary in all classrooms, the latter two less frequent,
except when the teacher in exasperation forbade any talking at all.
Concerning poverty, certain items of property were matters of great
concern, however, not because the kids didn't have them but because they
did. I'll take that up in the next chapter.
The matriarchy entered in chiefly through the use of mama as a derisive
word of the highest degree a remark made about someone's mama made the
person an object of ridicule, part of which was the result of the kid’s being
foolish enough to leave himself open to such a remark.
Still, they weren't an ordinary group of American teen-agers going to
junior high school. Skates called them The Tribe, and the name stuck— not so
much because of the verbal association with Africa, for there are plenty of
other groups we commonly call tribes and not all of them are Negro, but
because the group had controlling characteristics not shared by all other such
groups in America, characteristics which were really at the root of their
actions, and from which they could not easily escape.
15. Apples and Oranges
I can still remember my parents telling me about Christmas —when they
were children, how they used to get apples or oranges for presents along
with perhaps a toy, a doll, and maybe some exotic nuts such as almonds or
Brazil nuts which they called niggertoes. They didn't seem to me like the
kind of things you ought to get for Christmas, and I could never work up
much feeling for them when they appeared in my stocking year after year.
I grew up in Southern California where an orange is nothing to get excited
about— nothing suitable for a gift, hardly even property, just an expectable
part of daily life which you either liked or didn't. My folks would relate how
they would fight about these oranges with their brothers and sisters, accusing
the others of getting more than their share.... How could you fight about an
old orange, I'd wonder? During my free periods at GW these days, toward
the end of October, I began going into other classrooms to see what was
going on. We were six weeks into the season, about the time when, in
baseball, the rookies who hit .350 in spring training are beginning to fade
and be used as pinch hitters in the late innings of ball games already won or
lost. I'd begun to see that something else was needed if I was going to stay in
there myself, and I was looking for clues. However, "other classrooms" soon
came to mean the shop and the art room; most classroom teachers don't like
visits to their rooms, suspecting either that you are there to spy on them or to
steal their secret tricks for "handling the kids." In art and shop the kids move
around quite a bit, they may chatter as much as they like and approach
the teacher more easily, and probably this is what makes the difference.
Anyway, many of the thoughts that I'll write down in this and the next three
chapters began to occur to me during this time; what- ever conclusions I
arrived at later on that season may as well be included here too, in a brief
suspension of chronology.
Mr. Oliver, in the shop, acted like most of the shop teachers I'd known as a
kid. He knew the shop was a haven for the boys and let them have their
sanctuary at the cost only of observing a few rules: Do your cleanup without
griping, don't misuse the tools or throw them, no honing down the files to
make knives. He handed out immediate punishment with a heavy wooden
paddle to offenders. He wasn't trying to change their behavior, only to
control it or deal with it while they were in his shop. He also worked part
time in the shop out at Juvi and was a source of information about who was
there, who had been there, and even who was about to be there. Since this
was a kind of official secret at GW-you never knew what had happened to a
kid until he came back, unless other students told you— he was a valuable
One day he told me a story about a time when a number of state or city
officials were going to visit Juvi. The visit was announced in advance like
Army inspections, so of course they were all getting ready to make old Juvi
look pretty good. Among other things, the administration thought of
lunchtime, and decided they would put bowls of fruit out on each table. Not
that they didn't serve fruit regularly, of course; whatever kind was on the
menu for that day, say oranges, each kid got one on his plate or at his place
setting, however it was. The radical idea with the bowls consisted in the fact
that the bowls would be there for the kids to help themselves from, and that
there would be more than enough to go around. This last fact, Oliver said,
was carefully announced in advance.
I’ve often wondered just what gave them this idea about the bowls of fruit.
Why this particular departure from normal procedure? Perhaps they thought
it looked more civilized or homelike, something like family-style in an
Italian restaurant. It just seems to me an odd thing to do if you're trying
especially to find things that will look good for visitors. However it was, the
result was a riot.
The visiting officials were treated to the sight of the entire connection of
kids rushing at the tables, grabbing fruit, sticking it inside their shirts, in
their pockets, trying to run out of the dining room with it, yelling, cursing,
kicking and punching each other and the counselors, breaking the bowls,
mashing dropped fruit into the door, throwing fruit in every direction when
caught by group leaders ... it took two hours to round up all the kids, lock
them up, restrict them, and no one had any lunch at all. It took three more
hours to clean up the dining room, and for weeks afterward rotting fruit was
still being found in lockers, hidden behind furniture or in laundry bags. The
visitors came to the conclusion that the kids had always been deprived of
fruit at Juvi. Otherwise, they reasoned, why would anyone fight over a few
Why would a kid, or a whole row of kids, become frantic because they
weren't getting any pencils? Why was it no one could pass out paper for a
routine assignment without all the kids in the back rows pushing up to the
front, grabbing at the paper, crumpling it and spilling it out onto the door out
of fear they wouldn't get any? Certainly it was clear by now that they were
going to get paper and pencils, wasn't it? They always did, every day, every
period, all year long.
It wasn't as if they even used the paper very much. In some classes very
few actually wrote the assignment on that paper or even used it to doodle or
write notes on or make paper planes from, and often kids left it untouched on
their desks when they left; I could use it over again, or just leave it there
pretending I hadn't seen it, as another little bonus for some fortunate student.
Man! An extra sheet of school paper! Voices from all over the room would
inform on the kid, who in turn would yell out denials and lies to protect his
precious gift. If I went ahead and passed him out a sheet with all the rest, the
class was shocked and outraged. He already got a piece! He got one, Mr.
Yet plenty of kids had whole binders full of paper and those who did were
quite generous with it, handing out sheets regularly to anyone who asked for
it. These students with paper were indistinguishable from the rest when
school paper was passed out.
Other items of property could also cause a terrible panic. Among these
shoes were supreme, especially tennis shoes, which were always referred to
as "tennis." Most kids carried one set of shoes around with them while
wearing another pair and they were continually changing shoes in class,
usually with the excuse that they were coming from or going to P.E. Tennis
weren't trusted to hall or gym lockers; as in most schools, everybody knew
everyone else’s combinations so that the lockers were useless except as
places to store absolutely worthless stuff. During class kids were continually
picking up others' shoes or trying to step on new white shoes; this was
especially common among girls and caused a great deal of uproar, often
considerable weeping. New jackets and coats were important too and
favorite shirts— let a teacher grab any kid by the collar or sleeve and he found
himself facing a completely hysterical person, screaming about his clothes,
his coat, his shirt, concerned only with the immediate salvation of that
clothing and willing to forget any other consequence until the clothes were
safe. Kids often spent entire periods simply protecting an article of clothing
or a pair of tennis.
I ought to mention that we always felt it necessary to pass out one piece of
paper at a time per kid. Certainly if he used it all up he might have more. But
most students wanted to have two, three, several at once, in order to have a
pad to write on. They didn’t like to write on the bare wood of the desks and,
indeed, what a pleasant, luxurious feeling it is to write on a block of paper
where the pencil seems to press down on something that gives and lets the
lead glide along instead of on the unyielding surface, full of cracks and
carving, over which the pencil or pen makes a thin and bumpy line. But we
were always aware of the remonstrance’s of the administration at our
meetings; somehow the shortage of supplies was always crucial— running out
of everything was imminent. What were we going to do in May and June,
they'd be saying, if we let the kids waste materials now? Nothing is more
terrifying to most teachers than the prospect of days in a classroom full of
kids without supplies— no long written assignments to assure order and a
period of peace and rest. We felt responsible, and on some days we could
see a kid who got hold of four or five sheets of paper, wrote a little on one of
them and scattered the rest on the door as a pretty bad, heedless,
irresponsible citizen, not to mention destructive and wasteful. Still, it’s
possible to wonder why, in all of the vast, producing, consuming, buying,
advertising, fantastically wasteful country of America, it had to be precisely
this one article of three-hole, blue-lined, red-margined school paper that was
in short supply, which had to be carefully guarded against waste, which it
was immoral to waste, which had to be parceled out one sheet at a time,
equally and fairly of course, but still one at a time as if it was oranges in a
region where oranges were scarce around Christmastime.
Try to narrow it down. Poverty, they said, wasn't it. They had pocket
money, most of them, and stuff bought with it. All personal property wasn't
precious; their paper could be given away, money loaned, records swiped,
without great outcry. Some things, though, were holy and these were mainly
things that showed and looked good like the new jackets and shirts, which,
once torn, were completely useless. For tom, they didn't look good, and in
America you were supposed to look good, all clean, cool, sharp and above
all new. There was a certain need to produce on demand, like Skates, one
hundred percent of the time. Think how it would look going out there to P.E.
in your brown or black street shoes, pointy-toed, high or slippery-heeled,
sliding around over the floor or asphalt, the coach asking, Where's your
shoes? He (she) ain’t got none! they would all yell ... later too, your street
shoes appearing scuffed, the shine gone, beat up.
That was one point. But a point too was their concern over things they
didn't actually want, the paper and probably those oranges, a concern to get
their fair share of whatever was being passed out, passed out officially, what
you were spozed to get in school, at Juvi, as an American, from the
government, city, county, from the school, from the teachers. What was
being passed out today, what probably would be passed out tomorrow, but
on the other hand just might not be. What was being passed out one at a
time. For actually, of all the things that were being passed out to them, it was
always one at a time; there never was a surplus.
There was never a surplus. In vast, producing, consuming, wasteful
America, the very image of surplus, it just happened that all the items which
were being passed out officially one by one were those which had to be
strictly guarded against misuse, malicious destruction, and waste.
The Welfare Department, if confused about dads, certainly knew how
many people received welfare money. They knew about the public outcry
too, an outcry directed against the parasitic and wanton folk who moved here
just for those high welfare rates. Moved right into this paradise, deliberately
trying to pay those fantastic rents, go to GW school and live two or three
families to a house with all those dads hiding out or posing as friends of the
family, just visiting.
One thing you could say for the welfare, there was never a surplus of it.
Now, you weren't going to get enough money passed out to you, all at once,
to last you for a year, or five years, or even for six months. Can you hear
them saying, Welcome to town, and here’s money in this bowl on the table
and you just get you some, enough to last awhile, pay that high rent, buy
those potato chips, get you some new tennis, and when you get back on your
feet, when your ship comes in, you can give us back what you don't use? But
you could get money enough for one month passed out to you, according to
the law, fairly, if you could prove you didn't just come here to get that
particular money, if you could prove you had to have it, if you could prove
you hadn't no daddy, if you could prove you were entitled to it. Then you
could get it for that month. Then, next month you could get it again,
provided you could prove all those things all over again.
Forget you ! one kid would often say to another if he really wished to insult
him badly. It was almost as bad as calling him black. Forget you! When they
said it, it was a threat and, like a magic word or a curse, a prediction— a
prediction of possibilities for tomorrow, next period, next month, when it
just might happen that they were going to finally forget you.
A definitive characteristic of The Tribe was its desire for a surplus.
16. The Ugly Stick
As a kid of about fourteen I went to a high-school track meet with a friend
of mine— I remember we went because Jesse Owens' brother was supposed
to be there— and during the meet we were horsing around out on the grass
when two Negro runners came loping by. One of them slapped the other or
something like that, and he said, Look out, man, I’ll throw some white paint
on you! Both of them laughed, running past, and we thought it was one of
the most hilarious things we'd ever heard. It proved to us, also, that colored
guys really didn't want to be white, just as our parents were always saying,
and we didn't have to do any worrying about it.
It took quite a few visits to the art room before I asked Mr. Royal about
that poster welcoming everyone back to school. What I wanted to know was
whether the kids at GW had made it themselves. Yeah, they did, he told me.
He didn't volunteer anything else. Well, I said, it was a pretty nice poster. He
nodded. Yeah, it was, wasn't it? But what I wondered, I said, was why were
the two kids painted white? There hadn't seemed any other way to state the
question which was what I really wanted to know.
Mr. Royal looked at me; he didn't say much at first. Just, they all try to
paint what they see. He'd been teaching there a long time, although still a
young guy, a small, dark, slightly popeyed man who looked a little like
Baldwin. Warming up a little, he said, I mean, like all kids, they tend to
paint like pictures they've seen. I don't mean they particularly copy— some do
and some don't— but they're influenced, when they paint, by the paintings or
posters they've seen, not by real life. They all want to paint pictures that look
like real pictures, the kind they always see.
We left it at that; Malraux had said the same thing many times in many
different ways, none better, and I was surprised I hadn't thought of it.
Excluding the use of common American epithets applied to Negroes, I
wrote earlier. Not that they didn't know them or use them— the point was that
they applied them to themselves. Every common derisive word, all the
abusive nicknames, nouns and adjectives, all the big-lip, liver-lips, burr-
heads, fuzzy- heads, kinky-haired, nappy-headed, big-leg, high-ass, apes,
monkeys and too-blacks were dragged out daily and heaped on each other
casually or furiously, continually and fanatically. The focal point of all this
was the head and color of skin, and the point was ugliness. Nose, lips, hair,
all counted, but nothing else could produce the real anger of a kid being
called black, or the amount of derision in the cry of watermelon- head!
The Three C's alone among the kids I knew were immune from attack,
being, as I say, whiter than anyone else and having fairly straight hair. The
rest of the classes progressed through the traditional black, brown and beige,
and the blacker a kid was, the kinkier his hair, the wider and flatter his nose,
the larger and more averted his lips, the uglier he was and the more crap he
had to take. Robert he got hit with the ugly stick, Mr. Herndon, some kid
would yell, and that was that for Robert. When it dark outside nobody can't
even see Fletcher! Watch out somebody don't steal your head for a
My own classes ran true to form. 7B rarely indulged in this sort of insult,
8B constantly, but surreptitiously, because they thought I'd disapprove and it
would show up in their grades, 90 constantly and openly because their free
gift was such that they did what they wanted to, and 7H whenever they could
get their minds off their own problems long enough to remember to attack
someone else. At first I was extremely surprised and shocked. I couldn't
imagine how, with a whole white world ready and willing to call them all
these names and always making the distinction between African looking
(ugly) Negroes and Caucasian-looking (handsome) Negroes, they could add
to the situation themselves.
For a time I began to think that it was all a subtle way of finding out about
me— if they said, for instance, that somebody was big-lipped, fuzzy-headed,
black and therefore ugly, was I going to somehow agree that he was uglier
than the rest? Then I could be exposed as a racist, just another white mother,
and could be dismissed. But as it kept on, day after day, all year long, even
after they had in many cases ceased to pay any attention to me at all for long
periods of time, I could see it wasn't for my benefit. It was for themselves.
It never stopped. It was a characteristic of The Tribe. They agreed that
qualities which they all shared to some degree from birth were to add up to
bad. It was crucial that they join the people most hostile to them all in order
to establish relative degrees of ugliness, in order that some might be less
ugly. I got over my surprise, got over trying to figure if it was meant for me,
and it soon became only very boring, like slightly risque jokes school kids
are always telling you which you've heard a hundred times. You couldn't
ever say anything about dark, black, brown, gray, shadow, night, head, nose,
mouth, feet, legs, no raccoons, no dancing of jigs, no spades, no skin,
without invoking hoots of laughter and a number of personal remarks. No
one could read about any melons (your’ head look like one), no one could
read about apes or monkeys (you look like one) ... and if you somehow
managed to avoid all that, the rhymes would get you say crack, back, track,
Mac, hack, and you'd soon hear, Teacher, did you say black? or May, Mr.
Herndon say you too black! Or there would be the bitter variation, Robert,
go on leave me alone! You too white (quite, flight, bright, knight and right).
Times had changed, it seemed, since the track meet. White paint was now
in favor. If I had imagined that the students of GW would present a united
front on the question of their own (relative) blackness, it was a mistake. If I
had supposed they were concerned with testing me, that was a mistake too.
They weren't interested in degrees of liberal white attitudes like they spozed
to be. No, just let the cry of watermelon-head! ring out through the
classrooms of The Tribe and you knew that somebody was making a poster,
painting himself white if only for a moment, even if only relatively ...
painting himself into the good, white side like any other artist,
17. The Plop Reflex
It was Opal Jameson who introduced me to the third major characteristic
of The Tribe. Opal was a member of 7B and ordinarily no member of that
class would have been caught dead indulging himself, at least in the
classroom, in any of the characteristics of The Tribe. Except for Opal. Opal
was a big, tall, very black, strong girl with bad-luck features; she was
aggressive, argumentative, headstrong, unable to endure criticism of the
mildest sort, uncooperative and, at the same time, very intelligent indeed—
which was why she was still hanging on in the B group. I didn't think she'd
remain there throughout the next two years at GW, but as it turned out of
course, I never found out
Opal's desire was to be my second-in-command, If allowed to pass out the
paper, collect the work, correct the spelling papers, call out the assignment,
check the book numbers and do all the various small administrative jobs in
the classroom, she was happy, did her own work and didn't cause no trouble.
Unfortunately she didn't always get to do this. First of all, these were big
status jobs and many other kids in class wanted to share the glory; and
second, she became so officious and overbearing in her performance of these
duties— she argued with the kids about the neatness or the heading or the
correctness of the work they were turning in, she moralized constantly about
the scarcity of school materials and the evils of waste, she marked spelling
words wrong if kids forgot to dot their i's- that we couldn't bear it all the
time. When refused her prerogatives, she would consistently embark on
some sort of antisocial behavior upon which I would have to comment; at
the comment she would begin to argue, getting louder and louder and angrier
and angrier until I would have to tell her to shut up and sit down. She would
refuse to do this in no uncertain terms, whereupon I'd have to make a threat
or advance toward her, at which point she would resort to the Plop Reflex.
My introduction to the reflex came about the third week of school, about
two weeks before the time now, that I'm writing about, when I was thinking
about The Tribe. It was apparently the time in which kids' hopes had about
run out for another year, leaving about forty more weeks to go. Up until this
time Opal had been happily doing all these administrative tasks for me, and I
was quite happy to have someone do them, but it was brought to my
attention by other kids that lots of students wanted to do these jobs, that why
should Opal always get to do them, especially since Opal didn't always
behave very well in class, and that it wasn't fair. We discussed this in class
and I can now imagine Opal listening to this with no very good feeling— no
doubt it happened just like this every year. In the end, a little boy named
Lorenzo was chosen to pass out paper the next day, and people got started
making schedules and monitor lists and all that.
The next day I started talking about the Indians and the Bering Strait and
something about Kon-Tiki, I remember, for we were reading about the
Indians who used to live nearby, the oak trees which were all over; the shell
mounds the Indians left by the bay, and by and by I announced an
assignment in the book. Opal got up to pass out the paper. Immediately
Lorenzo let out a yell that he was supposed to do it. I agreed that he was
right. Opal simply said Sh!, grabbed the paper, and started up the row with
it. I told her to stop and give it to Lorenzo, about half Opal's size, who was
standing up by his seat, waiting for justice. Opal ignored me and started
thumbing off sheets of paper and slapping them on desks. I insisted. She
slammed all the paper down on the door and advanced upon me. She had a
peculiar stance when arguing: her feet flat on the floor, chin thrust out, her
body following it, leaning over, her butt stuck way out in back of her, arms
hanging straight down at her sides, so that she looked like a V standing on
one of its legs. Well, Lorenzo already asked, I said, and it was already
decided yesterday. She knew it. She said that Lorenzo didn't know how to do
it, all the paper would be wasted, that she was spozed to do it, that I was just
mad at her and wouldn't let her do it. Finally, argument not availing, she
marched over to the kid, who, during the arguing, had been picking up all
the paper and was just beginning to pass it out, and tried to snatch it away
from him. The class began to protest. Anarchy threatened. I wasn’t about to
have my only reasonable class going crazy. Shut up and sit down, Opal I
yelled. You are not passing out the paper. That’s that! Opal, all hope lost, let
out a yell, launched herself backward exactly as if she were a diver
beginning a back one-and a- half, flew into the air, bounced off a desk and
came down right square on her head on the door and lay there.
And that was the Plop Reflex. Remember how in the old comic strip, Mutt
and Jeff, some situation would be set up, something would happen and then,
by a twist, turn out unexpectedly? The one, usually Mutt, the smart one,
would be so amazed, so astounded, so flabbergasted by the utter illogic of
events, the insanity of the situation and the stupidity of Jeff that he would
simply keel over with astonishment; the implication was that everything was
so absurd that no other action was left open to him. It always happened in
the last frame of the cartoon and all you saw were the feet and part of the
legs of Mutt, oh the ground, disappearing out of the frame, and in the air
above the feet and legs was always written the word PLOP!
Of course it wasn't Opal who really introduced the Plop Reflex to me but
Ruth that first day. But at the time I hadn't thought of it as a characteristic of
The Tribe, but only as a little added attraction of Ruth's. As a characteristic,
in action, it was limited to the girls; not only that, but to the blacker, more
African-looking girls— those of the ugly stick. It just wouldn't have done for
a brown-skinned, straight-haired, thin-nosed chick to be hurtling through the
air like that. Just the same, it was definitive; everyone shared in it, although
only certain individuals were chosen to perform it.
Its significance? I'd say it was terror. When all hope was lost, when no one
was going to understand, when your demand wasn't going to be satisfied
(even if that demand was impossible of satisfaction)— then you could resort
to terror. At least that’s what I felt and what The Tribe felt when the girls
landed on their heads with a bang. Possibilities, justice— none of it counted
just then, and your momentary terror came as a reflex too, a reaction to an
event which had just rendered you powerless.
Teachers are always willing to give advice to new (or old) teachers, and I
talked to them all during those first six or seven weeks. The advice was of
two kinds. The first kind was useful enough and was about methods and
equipment you could use to do certain things— sets of flash cards, how to
group students, controlled readers, recorders, easily corrected tests, good
films— but after a short time I was already using most of these. My problem
was not what to use but how to get the kids to respond in such a way that
they learned something. That brought up the other kind of advice, which was
also the most common and which was use less to me. This advice was a
conglomeration of dodges, tricks, gimmicks to get the kids to do what they
were spozed to do, that is, whatever the teacher had in mind for them to do.
It really involved a kind of gerrymandering of the group— promises, favors,
warnings, threats, letting you pass out or not pass out paper, sit in a certain
place or not, A’s, plusses, stars, and also various methods for getting the
class working before they knew it. The purpose of all these methods was to
get and keep an aspect of order, which was reasonable enough, I suppose.
But the purpose of this order was supposed to be so that "learning could take
place." So everyone said— not wanting to be guilty of the authoritarian
predilection for order for its own sake— while at the same time admitting that
most of the kids weren't learning anything this way. Everyone agreed that
our students were on the average a couple of years below grade level,
everyone agreed that was because they were "deprived" kids, but no one
agreed that simply because nothing was going on the way they were doing it,
they ought to try something else.
It's not my purpose or even desire to criticize these teachers— they were as
good or better than most and they had a difficult job-but frankly I could
never come to terms with their attitude. They knew a certain way, or ways,
to teach. They knew how to get control of the class and, that established,
some ways to present the material they thought important. The control didn't
work consistently because the kids were not easily threatened, having little
to lose. Promises were fairly successful at the beginning of the year, but their
power steadily declined as the kids saw through them or were disillusioned
about their value. The material which was so important, which had to be
"covered," was supposed to lead toward understanding, broader knowledge,
scientific method, good citizenship or, more specifically, toward better
writing, speech, figuring, grammar, geography, whatever it was. But
actually what was happening was that they were presenting the students,
every day, with something for them either to do or not-do, while keeping
them through order from any other alternative. If a kid couldn’t or wouldn’t
do his assignment, he had only the choice of not-doing it, of doing nothing.
Almost every teacher admitted that this last was the choice of half the class
on any given day.
The kids who chose to do the assignment seemed rarely to benefit from it;
even if they did the speller conscientiously, their written work remained
badly spelled. The A's promised as prize for hard work didn't materialize.
The result was that these teachers faced, every year, the certain knowledge
that the first day of school was the best they could hope for, since the
progress and morale of the class could only be down- hill. The only question
left was whether or not they could hold out.
Following this point in our talks, such as they were, would flow
generalities of analysis and interpretation. Since their teaching methods were
right in other schools, they argued, it must be the fact of "deprivation" which
was at fault here. Deprivation was identified as a problem now, and
problems were supposed to be dealt with in such a way that they ceased to
exist. If deprivation was hindering learning, then someone should do
something about that deprivation.
What to do? The first and best thing, they all knew, was education. With
education would come better skills, with skills would come better jobs, with
better jobs would come middle-class incomes and the attendant middle-class
mores, values and ideas of order. After that the school program, curriculum
and methods, being essentially right, would work since the reason they didn't
work now was that the students were of the wrong kind; i.e., they were
But how were they to get educated, The Tribe, if the education they were
getting right here and now wasn't working? How get these skills (values,
ideas of order) if the methods used to teach them weren't producing any
skills by and large? I hate to keep saying this, but the inescapable fact is that
they weren't working and that therefore the rest was simply nonsense.
Long before we met, my wife had worked for Dr. Thomas French at the
Institute for Psychoanalysis in Chicago, and during this time I was reading
the first volume of his book The Integration of Behavior, which he had sent
her. He planned, in a series of books, to generalize about human behavior, in
terms of its being integrated or "goal-directed," from a case history of an
"abnormal" personality; in one place he answered critics, who complained
that you can't attribute the mechanisms of abnormality to the normal ways
of behavior, by stating and giving numerous examples of the fact that the
component reactions "such as are necessary to account for" normal behavior
play an essential part in neurotic or abnormal (or deprived) behavior. The
disintegration of reactions in abnormal behavior seemed to show up goals
and processes in a kind of relief, and motivational patterns which might be
overlooked in normal behavior were clearly shown in the abnormal. In terms
of my talks with colleagues, I began to use this idea to include what they
thought of as the normal (middle-class) and the abnormal (The Tribe's)
reactions to their methods of teaching, and to think that The Tribe's reaction
to this teaching was not different, only more overt, violent, and easily seen
than that of this imaginary normal or "non- deprived" child. In short that
where the middle-class kids were learning enough outside of the classroom
or accepting the patterns of conformity and behavior more readily and easily
so as to make it seem that they were actually learning in school, The Tribe,
unable to do this, was exposing the system as ineffective for everyone. It
wasn't working for them, it wasn't working for anyone, I felt; only with The
Tribe, it was more painful when it didn't work.
This kind of thing is what I hoped to avoid in these pages, but really I don't
see that it can be avoided entirely. After awhile I just talked with the
teachers about baseball, places to eat dinner, good movies, the pleasantries
of everyday life, so that where I had been well on my way to being a
difficult person to talk to, objecting to everything, I came to be a friendly
and talkative man (I think) who, to be sure, was having his troubles in his
first year of teaching at GW.
Skates indulged himself as usual in the teachers' room. His main interest
was in the Negro teachers, and he was always disappointed in them for
failing to be revolutionary in nature. He expected them to be in constant
conflict with their society and especially to keep on talking about it. He was
the only teacher at GW who ever alluded to the fact that some people in the
world and even some teachers and students at GW were members of the
Negro race and that this race had its difficulties in contemporary America. If
a Negro teacher mentioned that he'd flown somewhere, Skates would
immediately inquire which airline and go into a polemic about certain
airlines which didn't fly Negroes. It always infuriated him when no one else
would admit any knowledge of such a situation.
The Negro teachers were always going out, on weekends, to a country club
to swim or play golf or, as Skates always put it, just to be in a country club.
Whenever they talked about it on Mondays— only wanting to mention what a
good time they'd had, how many martinis they'd drunk or what their golf
scores had been— Skates would demand to know where this club was. It
turned out that it was way out of town somewhere, a long distance anyway,
and then Skates would demand to know why they went all the way out there
when there were plenty of good country clubs closer to home. Since the
reason was that the club was the only one around that would admit Negroes,
his questioning made everyone extremely nervous. Occasionally Skates
would change tactics and say he'd like to go out to the club with them
sometime, if, he wondered aloud, they were sure the club would admit Jews.
So many of them, he'd say, didn't.
He never stopped pushing them like this; still, he was also a very cheerful
and humorous guy at times as well as being extremely flirtatious with the
women, so that the teachers both feared and desired his presence at their
tables for lunch.
The only other teacher I knew well was Mr. Brooks; we were associated
mainly because he, like myself, didn't really know what he was doing and
because we both had 7H to cope with. Brooks had planned to be a coach, but
right now he was teaching arithmetic while waiting for an opening in the
P.E. department with the district. He was quite a pleasant guy and quite
often he and Skates and I played basketball together out on the field after
school with whatever kids were still hanging around, and after the game we
would tell each other horrible stories about 7H.
Brooks had the right idea for GW though. He planned to control 7H, keep
them quiet and in their seats. He had one thing going for him in this respect;
he'd played football in college and had had offers to join a professional
training camp which he'd turned down in order to start teaching. Thus he
was a big, rough guy and he had a notebook of his press clippings which he
kept on his desk for the boys to read and this helped. It didn't help enough
though, and for quite a while he used to show up at my classroom door just
before the end of school in order to keep 7H after school a little. I could
always tell when he was coming, because the kids always knew. After
spending a great deal of time loudly pinning the blame on one kid or
another— the kid denying it, of course, and pointing to other culprits— they
would start in making statements about what they would do when Brooks
arrived, how nobody keep them after school, etc. Brooks would arrive just
before the bell looking solemn or angry. The bell would ring. You ain't
keeping me! someone, usually Boy or Alexandra, would shout. I am, Brooks
would say. No you ain't, I'm leaving now! the kid would yell. Try it, Brooks
would say, and then Boy, say, would run full speed across the room and hurl
himself at Brooks, who would hurl him back effortlessly, and then someone
else would rush him. It became a game, a ritual; the kids never got tired of it,
since they weren't going anywhere anyway. Brooks, however, did tire of it
after a while and figured out something else, or didn't. This was during
October, as I've said; after that I lost track of what he was doing, as I lost
track of almost everything about GW except what went on in my own room
with my own students. But the one thing in Brooke's favor at GW was that
he was determined to keep order; Grissum could see that he was trying and
that eventually he'd learn how to do it. Since he also made himself available
for all kinds of extra yard and playground duty— to Skates's disgust— he was
judged an up-and-coming man.
Old Mrs. Z down the hall, next door to Skates, was the real wonder of the
school. I'm not pretending she was typical. For a while I was interested in
where 9D went after they left my room, and as this happened to be to Mrs. Z
for arithmetic, I used to go down and talk to her. She was white-haired,
apparently frail, and Southern. She told me that she had a very simple
attitude toward her students which was in fact no different from her feelings
about people in general. That was, all her life she'd spoken only to people
who were ladies and gentlemen. Since none of the students of 9D were
ladies and gentlemen, she never spoke to them, never had, and never would.
She also forbade them to speak in her classroom, for the same reason. If they
did speak she sent them immediately to the office with a note instructing the
office to keep them for the period. If they left their seats, she did the same. If
they chewed gum, put on lipstick or changed their shoes, out they went. She
didn't even speak to them when they were kicked out— just handed them the
slip from a ready stack inside her desk which she had all filled out except the
name of the culprit and the infraction of which he was guilty. Those left in
the room on any given day did in fact sit still and quiet; otherwise, of course,
they just weren't there. Mrs. Z felt that, not being ladies and gentlemen who
could be trusted to behave themselves in any situation without regulation,
they must obey orders and if they didn't even do that, they should not be in
Above her desk on the wall she had erected, many years ago, a shelf on
which she placed her files of ditto masters containing the problems on
adding, subtracting percentage, decimals, ratios, square roots, areas,
perimeters, formulas, the whole kit and kaboodle of ninth-grade arithmetic.
These she ran off, one a day, handed out the copies one at a time to 9D and
her other classes for them to do or not-do, and collected them at the end of
the period, done or not-done. All explanation was contained in the ditto. She
herself spent the period between sending out disobedient students, correcting
the previous day’s work and noting the non-work, and that ditto was handed
back with corrections, a percentage, and a grade. The grade she entered in
her own book.
In a way, Mrs. Z was magnificent. If she was not typical of the rest of the
teachers at GW, it was mainly because she was capable of a far-reaching
logic and basically confident. I felt that the attitudes of the rest were not
basically different, only that their methods were incomplete. They too
wanted the kids absolutely quiet and orderly, only instead of just eliminating
them from the class they argued and moralized with them about it, an
activity which resulted in no order and also no change in student attitude or
behavior. They also wanted the kids to do classroom assignments regularly
and to do only that work chosen by them, the teachers, the difference again
being only that they tried to talk the kids into doing the work, or to
encourage them, or promise them something for it. That is only an admission
to the children that there could be some disagreement about whether the rule
or the assignment is proper, old Mrs. Z said to me often out there in the hall,
and that is of course not true. There is absolutely no point, she continued, in
encouraging the children to believe something that is not true. At least, that's
the way she saw it.
Another person I often talked with was the school secretary, especially
around this time when I started receiving some notes from downtown about
which I’ll write later. She had been there a long time, knew all about past
administrations and all the current gossip about the kids and teachers. One
day she gave me a ride downtown to the district office; perhaps I'd ridden to
work with Skates, forgetting I had to go down there, or maybe my car wasn't
running. Anyway, as we passed the lake talking about this and that, she
suddenly said quite savagely, There's the bastard now!
I was a little surprised at that, but also I couldn't see who the bastard was.
Where? I asked. There, she said, slowing down and pointing to a big, new
building going up in front of us.
I thought it was the new Kaiser building, and said so. That's right! she
cried, Henry J. Kaiser, the man who caused all our troubles. He's the one
who brought in all these niggers in the first place !
19. Brotherhood Week
It was announced in our teachers' meeting that the last week in October
was going to be designated Brotherhood Week throughout the district. The
UN, One World, new nations arising to take their places, etc.,, equality, were
to be emphasized. Certain special films were scheduled to be shown in
connection with this in the English and Social Studies classes.
I showed them all. One was a film starring Frank Sinatra. Frank was
making a record as the film opened, and he just happened to step outside
the studio for a little breather when a gang of bad kids rushed up, chasing a
scrawny, scared, little Polish kid. The Polish kid was pretty foreign-looking-
-odd clothes, dark hair and skin, big nose. Old Frank talked to the bad kids
about things like the melting pot and how they all came from somewhere
else (although presumably not from Poland), and at the end of the film the
kids all felt pretty liberal and the Polish kid was accepted into the gang and
they went off to play ball and Frank went back into the studio. There he sang
a song that had been quite popular back in the early forties when The Tribe
hadn't been born. Its barely possible that this kind of lecture by Bobby Blue
Bland might have impressed the kids, but Sinatra didn't make it for them.
Another of our films was an avant-garde cartoon called Boundary Lines. I
liked it. When I said so, the kids told me I was crazy, because that film was
In contrast, the third film caused quite a stir. It was about the UN on a kind
of youth level. Kids of all nations, that was the idea, and it opened up with a
title shot of kids' heads framed around a circle. There were various
Caucasians in national headgear so you could tell them apart; there was an
Oriental, an Indian, what looked like an Eskimo, and, right in the middle,
one big, shiny, black face.
Brothers, said the film out loud. The classes broke up. Who that one? they
all wanted to know. No brother to me! Teacher, that Robert's brother, he an
ape too! Everybody laughed like hell. You mean they spozed to like that kid
too? No, man! Of all the ugly kids they'd ever seen, he was the ugliest. Get
him out of here ! Whooo-eee !
If that was the way the UN was going to act, trying to include them apes,
they didn't think much of its chances in the modern world.
20. Laid Off
My heroic and illegal efforts at State and Berkeley that last summer had
paid off by my meeting the credential requirements on the nose, but all of a
sudden I realized that there was a deadline for sending the papers in to the
state and I hadn't met it. I hurried around collecting documents and
signatures and, just in time, I thought, fired them off to the district office
downtown, which in turn was to do something to them and send them on to
The next I heard from them was in a letter from the Board of Education in
Los Angeles, informing me that the papers had arrived there by mistake and
that its office had kindly sent them back to San Diego! I wrote some frantic
letters and made some calls to the district office, which seemed to think I
had deliberately confused the matter and was making a lot of trouble for
everyone. Several days later during my free period I was summoned to Mr.
Grisson's office, where he regretfully informed me that my papers hadn't
arrived in Sacramento in time and that therefore I was actually uncertified to
teach at GW or anywhere else at the moment, and would have to stop doing
it until everything was cleared up. A young lady who had been substituting
in the district had been called in to take my classes for the month of
November; after that, it was hoped I could resume my work.
That was that. I made a trip that weekend to Sacramento and rambled
around the big, new, glass-walled Education Building until I found a lady
who for a fact, had my papers and letters right in front of her. She was
friendly and deplored the whole thing. In vain I urged her to certify the
papers then and there, but nothing doing. Something about time limitations
and regulations-the letter laying me off had been written before the papers
arrived, or at least, probably; it was another department that wrote the letters,
and once laid off, you had to remain laid off for at least a month. After all,
she said, you did delay sending in the documents until the last moment. I
couldn't deny it. It was a simple penalty, not much different from the one
you faced if you forgot to hide Dad under the bed one month when the
Welfare people came around. I made the rounds of a few Sacramento bars to
console myself and drove home.
Still, it wasn't too bad, I reasoned. My wife and I were both angry and
disgusted— she with me, and I with myself. However, I still had the job. My
papers were OK, the lady said, just late, and I could go back to work in
December after missing out on a month's pay. For luck, I’d already applied
for Christmas work at the post office and I very soon got a call to start
working four hours a day, so we almost made it officially.
Congratulations, man! Skates told me. You got out of GW for a while!
Well, that was true. I rested up, cased mail at the P.O. in the evenings, and
began to try to think what I was going to do when I got back, for actually in
the last month and a half with 7H and 9D I had come almost to the end of
21. What To Do?
Casing mail at the post office, you've plenty of time to think, in contrast to
teaching school at GW where there's no time to think at all. Sometime
during that month of comparative leisure I began to ask myself what I had
taught to the students of 7H and 9D; the answer was that as far as I could see
I’d taught them nothing.
I also thought about 7B and 8B, and dismissed them again for the same
reason as before— they weren't crucial. I thought I was doing all right with
7B. They were doing the work, of course, I was following along the course
outline, for after all they had to join an eighth-grade class next year which
would expect them to know things like what is an adverb and who
discovered Monterey Bay, and we had intelligent and hard-hitting
discussions about the effects of some of this history on various groups who
lived in America like the Indians or Chinese, we did a lot of writing and
editing and reading aloud of their own work according to my composition
plan— all in all we were having a pleasant and useful time in the classroom, I
thought. I decided I wasn't exactly selling them out.
8B would get along without me well enough. They hoped to advance in the
world while still indulging themselves in its destruction. In a sense, I
couldn't argue; they were attempting to con their way through, disbelieving
in any other possibility, and perhaps it was as practical a way as any I might
have to offer.
7B believed in what they'd been told ever since kindergarten— the school
ideals, neatness, promptness, courtesy, hard work; perform according to
them, they'd been told, and you could grow up to be President or at least a
private secretary (private secretaries were, according to the girls, the most
enviable girls alive) and enjoy the promise of middle-class America.
Believing this and being on the whole quite intelligent, they were a cheerful
bunch in class, which was where they saw their hope, order, and future. I
hoped they were right.
In any case, to get either group around to another way of thinking— and
remembering that 7B wasn't more correct in their analysis of the world than
8B, just a hell of a lot pleasanter to be with— would require a tremendous
amount of time and energy, which, given the existence of 7H and 9D, I just
didn't have; also, just what was the correct view of the world, of history, of
the California Indians, of Basic English, of GW for that matter? Both 7B and
8B were coping with their grades, for proof of which they were still in B
groups, and that’s all they needed to do and all I could expect them to do.
Both had divined the absolute key to getting through school, namely, that
you must understand and somehow satisfy the bureaucracy. One group
understood it and trusted it; the other understood it and conned it. Either way
the bureaucracy was satisfied. It didn't distinguish between 7B and 8B
because they were both B.
So my commitment was irrevocably to 7H and 9D, who weren't coping.
The commitment, apparently, wasn't enough; nothing was going on. We'd
established the preliminaries, or what I thought of as the preliminaries— who
we were in there, how we were going to act and where should we have been
ready to go.
Well, I told myself, for one thing, 7H was in no shape to learn or do
anything. The heart of their problem as a class was the simple skill of
reading. There were four kids who couldn't read their own names, three or
four who couldn't read anything else, and the rest of the class who could
read a little but were always shaky about it. They were unsure if they would
be able to avoid derision at any given moment, and so tried to assert their
superiority over each other in the very area of their common incompetence.
Any time we tried to work on beginning word recognition, letters, sounds,
the majority sounded off about "that baby stuff," and as a result the
nonreaders had to bound off about it too; they couldn't admit not knowing
how to read and so they couldn't ever begin to learn, because in order to
learn they'd have to begin, right there in class, with simplicities, easily
identified by all as "learning to read," and open themselves up to scorn.
On the other hand, everything we were supposed to be doing in class
presupposed that everybody could read. The Word (now in a third sense, as
Logos)— that was all that was going on in school, the beginning and the end,
only here it was the printed word. If you couldn't read it, what could you do?
7H had quite a few answers to that. Confronted with the word, Boy, for
instance, laughed. He jumped up, threw back his head and laughed. He
advanced to my desk and laughed, he roared with laughter, he raced around
the room laughing. Everything was so funny he couldn't stop laughing long
enough to read. Vincent got nervous. His face broke out in red blotches, and
his eyes watered so badly that he had to take out his handkerchief and wipe
them, so that of course the only reason he couldn't read was that his eyes
were watering so otherwise, he implied, he could read the hell out of it.
Harvey always looked at me indignantly and asked why did I always pick on
him to read the hardest parts? Now them other easy parts, I could read them
real good, he'd say, but you just trying to make me read all the hard parts and
I ain't going to do it.
Alexandra alone faced the reading issue with defiance and aplomb— she
read like hell. Whatever was given to her, she just read right along,
stumbling occasionally, but always recovering and getting everything right.
This drove me crazy until I discovered that she was listening to Judy sitting
right behind her muttering the words and Alexandra, sharp and cool, reading
aloud after her. So I moved Judy one day, and Alexandra still read right
along although considerably slower and with some mistakes; she not only
had to be looking over at Judy in order to read her lips, but she also had to
look down at the page once in awhile to give a semblance of reality and it
was pretty difficult. She read Judy's lips! It's not so astounding, I guess;
they'd been together in classes for years so Alexandra had had lots of
practice. On days when Judy was absent Alexandra just pulled potato chips
or candy out of her purse before her turn and began to eat them
ostentatiously. If this didn't prompt a remark from me the other kids would
object loudly; Alexandra would then begin to argue about eating in class
(her mama told her to eat them potato chips!) and pretty soon Alexandra
would get mad and announce how she wasn't going to do no reading today
because I was so mean!
On the first day I found out she was reading Judy's lips, I went slightly
crazy; I lectured her for ten minutes on how difficult it was to read lips, how
simple it was by comparison to read, how if she'd have spent one-tenth of
the time learning to read that she'd spent avoiding it.., finally she yelled out
furiously that she could so read, and why was I trying to lie and say she
couldn't read? Judy piped up and said she was Alexandra's best friend
and she ought to know, and Alexandra could so read, and that she-Judy—
just read along with Alexandra to keep her company because we friends, Mr.
Herndon! The rest of the class was taking sides by that time and began
advising me on what Alexandra had done in the second or fifth grades and
what that teacher said and did; finally someone remembered that I'd
mentioned the secret word lips and said no wonder Alexandra could read
Judy's lips, they were so big and fat and ugly, and so we had to hear from all
sides about big-lip and liver-lip and watermelon-head and so on down the
line. During this time Alexandra gained the upper hand, having very thin
lips, and Judy, for all her fat-lip, could read better than anyone else. So
everything was fine, except we were right where we began.
The other nonreaders, or almost nonreaders, applied similar tactics, to the
effect that it was more honorable to appear bad than stupid. When it came
their turns to read they simply did something outrageous, we had our uproar,
got over it, and Virgil or Judy would finish reading the story.
At one point I decided to get Judy and Virgil to help teach the others. It
was the obvious thing to do and was fine in one sense— that is, everyone
knew that Virgil and Judy were smart, smarter than anyone else in the class
by a long shot, and so it was no disgrace to be instructed by them. Everyone
was happy to cooperate. I had Virgil and Judy sitting at desks tuned around
to face three or four other desks, all equipped with flash cards, simple
sentences written on large sheets, syllable sounds, rhyming words everything
all just as the unit plans say. I stood by, ready to lend a hand and also to
keep the rest of the class busy or at least fairly quiet. Everyone enjoyed it a
lot, but it didn’t work.
The trouble was Virgil and Judy. Judy was a short, stocky little girl, black,
African-looking, intelligent, and she possessed a terrible impatience and a
temper. For one thing, having had to take everybody's crap for so long about
her looks, she was not going to hold back pointing out their lacks in the area
of brains. She liked being teacher, and often worked at it quite seriously, but
she always went too fast, got impatient, criticized, mocked and called
everyone stupid, which no one could take without making a remark in turn
about Judy's head.
Virgil hadn't changed any since the first day, which makes it obvious how
his group went. He showed them a word and then told them it meant
something else; he wrote long words or nonsense words and slipped them
into the stack of flash cards, or else he would ask Wade or Harvey how to
spell anti disestablishmentarianism— and of course the ability to spell that
word, in no matter what school, always represents the acme of intelligence
While this was going on, he advised them not to consult me because I was
still trying to figure out ways to get them in trouble; this kept them where he
wanted them, in a place where there was no appeal, no chance to find out
anything for certain. He didn't even want them to trust him— Virgil wanted
above all a permanent state of uneasiness for everyone. He was simply a
mean little son-of-a-bitch, no matter how he got that way. We still had, by
the way, the problem with the absence slips. Most days now I let Alexandra
copy the names on the slips themselves, using the printed class list on my
desk. I would check the ones for her to copy and she wrote them down and
posted the slips. They could tell their names if Alexandra wrote them down,
apparently, and of course trusted her since she was in the same boat. It was a
long process though, and once in awhile something in the class would
prevent me from enlisting Alexandra's help and I'd have to turn the slips in
myself. Whenever I refused Alexandra, they were all certain that I was
plotting against them, even though in fact they never got into trouble about
Skates said that the trouble with the class— I kept describing it to him and
worrying about it— was that it was like a concentration camp. You got all
kinds thrown in there together, he said, for all different reasons. You got
honest-to-God crooks, you got political, and some just plain old Jews. You
can't figure out what the camp is really for! What was the H for? I assumed
it was a classification for the ten or twelve in the class who were reading and
writing at about a second-or third-grade level, just keeping out of the
basement. But if so, that left out Boy, et al., who weren't necessarily slow
learners or necessarily anything else— you simply couldn't tell, at least not by
the goddamn tests since they couldn't read them. So the inclusion of Boy,
Vincent, Harvey and Alexandra and the four others who were almost as bad
made it a class for nonreaders, a place to take up reading from the beginning,
i.e., the alphabet.
Still, with Virgil and Judy that H changed again; it designated a category
for smart kids who had temper tantrums or were sons-of-bitches, a kind of
opportunity class, as we called it when I was in grammar school, where
intolerable kids could either straighten up or rot while keeping out of
What to do? One thing was to send Judy and Virgil to the library to work
by themselves, but they weren't easily shut out of things, and after one visit
to the library the librarian wouldn't have them in again. Also, the nonreaders
refused to work with anyone but Judy or Virgil. They weren't going to be
instructed by some kid who could just barely read himself, since that made
their position too obvious. Again, I couldn't at all work with just the slow
readers, the majority of the class, for that meant that I was implying that
those left out couldn't read, which was of course intolerable. There we were,
crooks, politicals and Jews, stuck with each other, and I couldn't for the life
of me figure out any plan that was going to take care of them all.
How did the kids feel about it? Guessing, I'd say that the slow readers, the
majority, were the least satisfied. At least their complaints were the most
reasonable and the most consistent. We ain't learning anything, Mr.
Herndon! Why don't you teach us nothing? You spozed to teach us that
book!— pointing to Red Feather or some other damn fool piece of printed
matter. I couldn't tell if they really meant it, but I agreed with the complaint.
Virgil and Judy were happy. They allowed themselves all kinds of liberties
of temper and deceit, were looked upon as geniuses, and received attention
from all sides. The nonreaders, while I suppose generally miserable all the
time, appeared to like the class; perhaps it tormented them less than other
situations they'd been in.
All in all, they were probably enjoying themselves. There was lots of
activity, lots of excitement and uproar for which no one was being sent to
Miss Bentley, and there was lots going on that looked like really seventh-
grade school. The grouping-instruction arrangements were a tremendous
success, what with the moving of desks, the cards, slips of paper, colors, the
grand passing out of all these materials ... it wasn't at all boring for them. As
Harvey remarked right in the middle of things one day, This look like a real
class! It is a real class, you watermelon head! came the retort from someone.
I know it a real class, said Harvey stubbornly, but I mean it look like it is
Well, it did look like one (at least to me and Harvey) but still we weren't
getting anywhere. At least, that's how I saw it there in the post office. What
to do? 9D wasn't the same. They didn't have the problems of the non-reading
population of 7H, nor, of course, did they have Judy and Virgil. It wasn't
entirely clear why they were in the D section— but the middle section in any
such system is the most unclear as to reasons why. They hadn't serious
enough problems to keep them from being able to read, say, but then neither
were they with it enough to keep doing homework and write compositions
and join the B's. They were in many ways the most mature of the school
population, but also the most apathetic and disinterested and cynical about
the entire range of school activities. What had we done in 9D?
As I said, we'd been intellectuals. That means we discussed all serious
questions with a view to finding out the reasons and causes and probable
outcomes of situations, everyone having a say including myself. The
discussions were lively, honest, uncompromising (and disorderly)— I was on
the whole satisfied with them. The problem with such discussions was they
inevitably came to an end. Like intellectuals everywhere, we demanded
action, but— again, like many— we found none to take and became inevitably
disgusted with all this talk. A good example of this was our discussion about
the meaning of D and of the whole grouping arrangement.
Although the kids were supposed to be unaware of the existence and
nature of the grouping arrangement, they of course knew all about it. One
day a kid opened up a period by asking me to explain why they were all in a
dumb class— what he actually said, I remember was: If we in this dumb class
why should we do anything if we already too dumb to do it? Yeah, came a
number of voices in agreement, old D for Dumb ! and several similar
expressions. This particular discussion went on for several days and I recall
being pleased that there was this carry-over from one period to the next, and
the students came in the next day ready to take up where they'd finished the
day before. It was also one of the few times they wanted to listen to me talk
for long periods of time, which was perhaps why I remember it so well. I
tried to explain about the tests, who made them, who took them, what they
meant or didn't mean, why you might do well or badly on them on any given
day, and how they got the groups out of the results of the tests. We figured
out the ratios on the board— everyone could do this exercise although they all
flunked arithmetic— in short we covered the subject completely. Everyone
wanted to know about it because, I imagine, it was true and had something
to do with them, and no one had ever gone into it with them before.
However, at the end of it there remained the same old problem, what to do?
All the talk hadn't changed anything; they were still in old D for Dumb and
they were going to stay there. As soon as someone came up with this
pronouncement the discussion stopped, the end being forcibly expressed as
usual by Verna's turning her back on me and the class and saying Sh! May et
al., clamored once again for spellers so's they could learn what they spozed
to, but they were yelled down by others who shouted that they'd been doing
those old spellers and those sentences for years and hadn't gotten out of the
dumb class yet— they could see that wasn't the way. That was about the way
things stood. We'd talked about everything, about what was wrong with
everything, but when we finished, all those things were still wrong. We had
to do something, but what that was we didn't know. As a class we only knew
what we didn't want to do, what we weren't going to do because it wasn't no
use to do it.
At the post office I could think about all this very clearly in quite abstract
terms and I narrowed the problem down to its primary causes. Why was 7H
different from 7B? Not that they weren't as smart or hadn't learned certain
useful skills about school; that was true enough but wasn't the problem. The
problem wasn't how to get them to be as smart as 7B but simply to get them
to begin learning as much as they could right now, however much that might
be. The difference was one of solidarity as a class. 7B had it, they felt good
as a class, and so each one could go ahead and do the best he could like a
member of a good baseball team or orchestra. Even 8B had it— the fact that it
was based on an anti-school-bureaucracy ideology didn't affect that, What
mattered was that by and large they agreed among themselves about what
they were doing there.
The problem with 7H was they had no solidarity.
The problem with 9D was that they had rejected the ordinary avenues of
activity which had been offered to them, but hadn't come up with any
alternative of their own. In fairness to them, it didn't seem likely that the
possibility of making up their own alternatives had been often granted them.
No, they had been presented year after year with an offer of certain things to
either do or not-do, which is alternative enough in itself. I remember
reading, from some novel or other, about two kids talking about class, this
last alternative wasn't being offered. What to do? I wish school would start,
said one kid, so we'd have something to do. What would we do then, man?
asked the other. Then we could cut school! said the first.
They could not-go. Not-do it. It was something. Now, in our class, this last
alternative wasn't being offered. What to do? They had never gotten the idea
that they might be doing something else and still call it school.
What did I want them to do? I wanted them to learn something about
English, since that was what they were spozed to learn in my class, and
specifically I wanted them to learn something about writing— how to say
what they wanted on paper so that somebody else could read it. But that
brought us back to what they wanted to say, or anyway what they wanted to
say on paper. That ought to be written down instead of just talked about. In
this respect the discussions, upon which I'd counted, were a failure; no one
found it necessary to record his own or anyone else's thoughts.
The problem with 9D was to find out what they wanted done which
needed the classroom, the school situation, to do, which couldn't be done
otherwise. I was committed now to finding it. I couldn’t change now, hand
out the spellers, give out ditto sheets with sentences to copy or diagram and
all that without probable open rebellion, besides which I didn't want to
Still, what to do? It was no problem, there in the post office as November
ended, to come to this sort of conclusion about GW. It was something else to
think what to do about it. How to grant solidarity to 7H? How discover what
9D wanted to do? I was never able to think of anything there, away from the
class, so in December back I came to GW exactly in the same shape as when
I'd entered that fall except for all this meditation, going into the classroom
Monday morning without a specific plan of action, idiotically confident that
something would turn up, determined— since I apparently couldn't do
otherwise— to wait and see.
22. Welcome Back!
Monday morning 7B and 8B seemed the same. They had few comments to
make about the past month except for a few kids who said they were glad to
see me back and a few others who said they wished they could still have
Mrs. A, whose name I've forgotten. 9D, however, greeted me with an
indignant and sincere-sounding outcry. Mrs. A was a better teacher than I,
she was a real teacher, I wasn't no real teacher, she really made them work,
not just have them old discussions every day; no, man, they were learning
spelling and sentences and all they was spozed to. Moreover she was strict
and didn't allow fooling around— all in all they felt they'd been really getting
somewhere. I looked in my grade book, up to now pretty empty of marks,
and saw, sure enough, a whole string of grades after each name— mostly,
however, Fs and zeroes. Many of them had nothing but zeroes, which I took
to mean they had been busy not-doing this important work. I pointed this out
to the class, but it didn't matter. They had been back on familiar
ground; strict teacher, no fooling around, no smart-off, no discussions about
how bad school was, and plenty of work. That was, after all, what school
was and they were in favor of it.
7H was in a similar temper. They too had tales of plenty of real work,
strict discipline, no talking, no gum, reading aloud every day, everybody—
and then they came out with a long list of all of them who had been sent to
the office for talking or chewing gum or refusing to read or laughing or
getting mad at the teacher. Mrs. A gave them work on the board every day,
they screamed, and she made them keep a notebook with all this work in it
and they were spozed to bring it every day to work in and get graded on it.
That was what real teachers did, they told me. I asked to see some of the
notebooks; naturally no one had one. What about that? I asked. No use. She
made us keep them notebooks, they all shouted. The fact that no one had
kept or was keeping them notebooks didn't enter into it.
There were some more important changes. For one thing, John Banks was
gone. Where? No one knew. Without him life in 8B was simpler, and I was
happy about it. Also Virgil was gone from 7H. Everyone knew where he
was— in Juvi, of course, for setting fire to several large garbage cans in the
halls during one of the periods when he'd run out of class. I was pleased that
he hadn't done it while I was there; he'd stopped running out of class after
the first day anyway, presumably because we offered enough uproar and
excitement right there to keep him content. Fie never came back to GW from
Juvi, or at least I never saw him; there was talk that he'd been transferred to
another school, but I don't really know. One of the Oriental kids was gone
from 8B also; the kids said he went to Japan. This changed my statistics, but
wasn't otherwise significant.
A big change was that everyone had them spellers. May showed hers off
triumphantly. Most of the spellers in 9D were empty of writing— all that
copying of words and alphabetizing and putting in lines between syllables
hadn't actually been done except by May, Josephine and Geraldine. Theirs
were all filled out to date, but were also all wrong. 7JJ had spellers too, but
after the first victorious outcry their tone changed and they issued a
complaint about them. For while Mrs. A was a great teacher, for evidence of
which they had their nonexistent notebooks and blank spellers, she had made
a serious mistake; the spellers were second-and third-grade spellers. We in
the seventh grade, Mr. fJerndon! She give us the wrong spellers!
The state spellers tried to keep grade level a secret; they didn't say seventh
grade or second grade anywhere on them, to keep the kids unaware of the
fact they were working below (or above) grade level. What they did have
was a number of dots, near the top, perhaps so the teacher could tell what
grade level they were— seven dots for seventh-grade, two dots for second
grade. It didn't take long for the slowest kid to figure out this system.
7JJ raised hell with me about the second-and third- grade spellers. They
needed seventh-grade spellers. They'd already had them second-and third-
grade spellers for a number of years, they pointed out with justification;
they'd already not-done them a few times.
Hell, I thought; it didn't seem very important to me of a sudden, and I went
over and grabbed a stack of seventh-grade spellers from the shelf and passed
them out. Everyone was delirious. The holidays were only a couple of weeks
off, and I told them it was a Christmas present.
It was true the second-and third-grade spellers were of no use to them.
What they needed was official spellers with seven big dots on them, to carry
outside on the school grounds and home with them to prove they were too in
seventh grade. I gave out a bunch of homework in spelling and ordered
everyone to take the spellers home that very night to do the homework in;
everyone carried those spellers home and back again every day from then
on, until they were lost or swiped. I was, if not a real teacher like Mrs. A, at
least a good guy again, and that was something. We were back to normal,
ready to go.
23. Mrs. A’s Advice
In my free period that first day back I conferred with Mrs. A, who was
sticking around to let me know what she’d been doing. She was an extremely
attractive woman, perhaps thirty, well-dressed, light colored, her hair nicely
waved and under control; everything else was pretty well under control too,
as I discovered. She told me, although not in so many words, that my classes
had been a mess when she took over, that she considered them well on their
way to straightening up after a month with her, and that it was now up to me
to keep them that way. She got this across to me very nicely in the kind but
firm manner some people have with training animals.
She advised me to figure out a regular and consistent plan of work, or
simply to accept the one she had devised and see to it that the students did
this, or if not that they at least did nothing else during the period. I should
grade all papers immediately and hand them back so that students who did
the work could see their rewards promptly.
It was important, she said, to get them into the proper mood for
schoolwork as soon as they entered the room. In particular, avoid beginning
the period by talking to them, explaining, or lecturing, which they would not
listen to and which only encouraged them to start talking themselves. She
believed that I talked to the class too much anyway— there was no point in
their expressing opinions about things they knew nothing about. Let them
learn something first, she said, and then they might have something to say.
The best method for getting them in order was to have a paragraph written
out on the board when they entered, and get them in the habit of copying this
paragraph in their notebooks immediately they sat down, giving a time limit
for its completion, erasing the paragraph when the time was up, and grading
the notebooks frequently. Copying was something they could all do without
further explanation from me; it got them in the mood for schoolwork, quiet,
their materials ready, all set for the day's lesson, whatever it was.
I didn't have a lot to say to this advice. In the face of the nonexistent
notebooks and the unused or all-wrong spellers, the list of those trooping
down to the office for misbehavior, I couldn't see that the regimen had been
a great success. In any case, the advice wasn't new. I'd been getting the same
advice since September, especially the part about the paragraph. Perhaps
after a year or so of this it might work; I didn't think so, but it didn't matter
either. I knew damn well that they'd been getting this treatment for the past
six years, that during this time they’d learned practically nothing about the
"Skills" this type of order was spozed to produce— no adverbs, not how to
spell, no punctuation, not adding, subtracting, multiplying or dividing; many
hadn't even learned how to read. I couldn't see my way had been a great
success either— in fact, I didn't know what my way was— but the other was a
failure and was going to be a failure. I couldn't see any reason to keep on
doing it. I really couldn't.
I didn't say any of this to her. After all, she began to tell me about her own
life; how she'd taught for five years, then had kids, stayed at home until the
kids were in school, and was now coming back into the profession. She had
a job for next year, fulltime, ’for the district. She thought that what these kids
needed was to learn to conform to the ordinary standards of American
society, morals, and language. She also thought that too many teachers,
faced with these children— we ignored The Word-just gave up on them,
considered them hopeless, wouldn't give them a chance.
It wasn't surprising that we had so little to say to each other. She believed
my classes were a mess because I was white and they were Negro kids and
so I thought they weren't worth making an effort for. I thought she was
working hard to help them in a way that hadn't ever helped them, wouldn't
help them in the future, and was in fact cementing them into failure,
rebellion or apathy. She thought I couldn't imagine them ever being tolerable
students or responsible citizens. I thought that she, a middle-class Negro
woman in a lamb's-wool sweater, had less contact with these students than I,
knew less about them, mistrusted them more, thought less of their
capabilities, and disliked them, as they were now, utterly.
24. Other Things
During the short weeks before Christmas vacation I began to collect
materials for what I hoped was an onslaught against 9D and 7H, but
otherwise I simply let them follow Mrs. A's guide for hard work and
success— assignments in the books, them spellers, homework, the notebooks
and no discussions. Since Mrs. A wasn't really there, they continued to
discuss and criticize as usual, but I didn't participate. Very little that
happened now was going to count after Christmas, I reasoned, and I was
trying to think. When my opinion on some crucial matter was requested I
declined to answer; you guys are spozed to be doing all that real schoolwork,
I told them, not just talking.
I kept casing mail at the post office after school, sometimes until midnight.
When vacation started I worked eight or ten hours, into the early morning,
until Christmas Eve, and we came close to breaking even financially.
After Christmas Skates came over a couple of times to visit. Skates, who
was completely critical of every aspect of modern life, made exceptions for
my wife Fran and my son Jay, who was about a year and a half. The
evenings then were foggy, wet and cold, and From had generally made thick
pea soup with ham and bacon and sausage floating in it, or perhaps stew
with green onions and new potatoes and carrots, green peas, wine, rosemary
and thyme or dill. You could see Skates's eye cloud over and his
revolutionist's soul relax, eating the soup or stew with hot bread, watching
the child play. How can the kid be so beautiful? Skates would yell between
mouthfuls. And your wife, Jim! How could you get such a wife! You
couldn't have done better, he'd tell me over and over again during those
evenings. You couldn't have done better!
Eater he always wanted to question Fran about her own childhood. She
was Indian, had grown up on a farm in North Carolina where her father grew
tobacco, and the group of Indians around there were supposed to be the
descendants of both the Indians and the servers of Roanoke Island,
Raleigh's mysterious colony.
He came over a number of times, then and later, and soon had heard most
of the stories. Still, whenever he came he wanted to hear them over again.
He wanted to hear about how that town had triple segregation, three schools,
white, Negro, and Indian, about the Indian college that the whites wanted to
get into but weren't (yet) accepted in, about the time the Klan came to town
and the Indians all got their rifles and met them in a held, about when the
Gypsies came to town, about when the anthropologists came to town, about
the famous outlaw Lowry. These are other things, Jim! he'd yell over at me,
interrupting some narrative. Other things to hear! You couldn't have done
Sometimes he'd ask Fran, Well, what do you think about old GW school?
And she would answer something to the effect that it sounded dreadful
enough, all right, but that principally she was afraid it was driving me nuts.
Think of other things, Jim! he would advise me. And then, turning to Fran,
briefly his old savage self, that lousy Grissum, that hatchet man, that rat!
But he's doing you a favor, I-'ran! He's railroading your husband out of
there! Believe me, it's a favor! A gift!
I was always astounded at this kind of talk. I couldn't see that I was going
nuts. I couldn't see that Grissum was railroading me. How was I nuts? What
was Grissum doing to me? I didn't worry about it though, and the
conversation always turned to other things.
25. Carrots. Mrs. X's Advice
Two days after vacation I received a note from the secretary that Mrs. X
(another name I don't remember) was coming down to talk to me. Mrs. X
was the District Language and Social Studies consultant for GW.
Mrs. X didn't visit my classes. She met me in the teachers' room during my
free period and opened the conversation by telling me that she came, as she
did with all the new teachers, to offer any help or advice she could.
This Mrs. X was white, elderly, tall, stringy, wore a print dress— the very
picture, I must say, of the old- lady schoolteacher. She asked me if I had any
problems I cared to mention. Did I? I began to outline them— 9D's apathy,
7H’s conglomeration of inabilities. I raced enthusiastically into a point-by-
point description of the problems of 7H for a starter; I considered myself
something of an expert on the subject. I spoke as if we two were going to
reform the entire system, then and there.
Before I'd gotten fairly started, she interrupted. Now, we all have our
problems, she said, and sometimes we're tempted to consider our own
problems as being unique. But with these children (leaving out The Word, as
usual) I've found that a simpler, more direct approach works best. I feel
already that you may be making it all too complicated for yourself. In my
experience, the best advice I can give you beginning teachers is, hold out a
A carrot? I didn't get it.
You know, she said brightly, the carrot, or perhaps we should say a sugar
cube. If you want the goat to pull the cart, but he doesn't want to, you hold a
carrot out in front of him. He tries to reach the carrot because he does want
it. In doing so he pulls the cart. If, she said with a kind of wink, if you've
attached the carrot to the cart.
I must have seemed a little stupid to her. Seeing that I just sat there, she
tried to explain. Teaching these children is like training animals. For each
task you want them to do, you must offer them a carrot.
You mean, I finally said, you try to get the goat to pull the cart without his
realizing it. That is, the goat actually does what you want him to do, but all
the time he thinks he's just trying to get that carrot. He doesn't realize he's
pulling the cart. Not only that, but pulling the cart isn't something that any
goat, any normal goat, ever wants to do, but ...
I think you're trying to make it complicated again, she said, frowning.
You mean, I tried again, to get the students to do the assignment because
of some reward he's going to get, not because he realizes that the assignment
is valuable or interesting to him. You mean, the assignment itself can't be the
She felt happier. That's it, she said. Of course the reward must vary. There
are individual differences as we know. A carrot for one, a sugar cube for
another. Mercifully the bell rang. Mrs. X went back to her desk in the district
office, downtown. I sneaked a quick smoke, my mind filled with carrots and
outrage, and arrived upstairs a bit late to greet 9D.
26. Projection— Mr. Grisson's Advice
The next day I was invited, during my free period, to Mr. Grisson's office
for a talk. As it turned out, that was normal procedure after a visit from the
consultant. I was still outraged about them carrots and also I was tired of
taking up my free time— during which I planned to drink coffee and smoke
cigarettes— with substitutes and consultants. I believe I had some idea that
Grissum and I, both being involved in the "real" situation, would soon settle
these damn people.
So when he asked me how things went with Mrs. X, I was ready. I stated
that she was hardly a person to advising beginning teachers, seeing as how
she thought that teaching kids was about the same as obtaining a dog to play
dead. He didn't seem disturbed. Instead, as I paused for breath, he said, I
believe your problem is one of projection. You are not projecting.
Again I didn't get it.
Your voice, he said; projection, like an actor, or a good officer. The tone of
command. Men, or children, hearing the voice properly projected, stop, pay
attention, and end to do what the voice says. Your voice hasn't that effect.
You find yourself, for instance, shouting to get their attention.
That was the first I knew that he had any idea what went on in my room.
Well, I said, I more or less think that the reason I shout is because they're all
talking at once and otherwise they wouldn't hear me.
He shook his head. That's not the point. The point is to have them firmly in
control by your voice as soon as they enter. Before they ever get into that
state. Now, I'm going to arrange for you to have voice lessons. You'll be able
to take them here, at the school, during your free period. You'll find it to be
of great value, wherever you go and whatever you do.
Fine, I said, not knowing what else to say. I was rather astounded. I didn't
have the slightest idea what he was talking about; also, I'd momentarily
forgotten about my free period.
It's an excellent experience, he said. You’ll be notified when the program
The interview was clearly over. Still, I didn't feel we understood each
other. Voice lessons were OK but I had something else to say.
Mr. Grisson, I said, I'm sure voice lessons will be of value (I wasn't sure),
but the thing is, I don't feel the problem is that I can't get them under control.
I’ve had quite a bit of advice on that subject and I'm sure it's not very
difficult to do that. The thing is, I don't want to get them under control. I
want them to see some reason for getting themselves under control.
He began to look at me intently. I rushed on. It seemed to me, I told him,
that they'd been having this firm control for years now, and it hadn't worked.
They still hadn't seen any advantage in self-control, so obviously it hadn't
Your description is correct, he said, but your conclusions, as I interpret
them, are wrong. For if they’ve not yet learned self-control, then they must
be controlled until they do learn it. You are the person to do that. It does
them no good to be out of control, and it is dangerous. It is dangerous to
them, and to the orderly running of the unit, the school.
He was intent and serious; he had a few things to say himself, apparently.
History shows, he said, that democracy is only granted to those
populations who can manage their own affairs, who can do what is necessary
without being forced to. The moment they no longer can, a leader, a
monarch, even a dictator, takes over and orders them to do what they cannot
make themselves do. That may be unpleasant for them, but it is inevitable.
27, Comes the Revolution— Skates's Advice
In between his threatening the traffic going both ways and his complaints
about his affairs and landlady, I was able to tell Skates about all the advice I
He was appropriately indignant. This would never happen in Chicago ! he
told me. That's your free time! You ought to get double time to have to hear
that bullshit during your free period! Screw them! Be happy if you get fired.
But, man ! I said, feeling he wasn't getting the point. How can you call that
teaching? How can I have kids copy stuff off the board who can't read their
own names? Why should I give out assignments to kids who don't see any
reason to do anything, let alone those assignments? And those carrots! What
kind of carrot? Let alone the principle of the thing, just leave that part aside
for a minute, these kids won’t go for those phony rewards anyway! They
know that’s all crap, those A's stars, all that.
Surprisingly, Skates disagreed. No they don’t, he said. They don't know
anything, not even that. This is capitalism, don't you understand? Each one
thinks he’ll get ahead of the next kid, this time! I tell my kids, Do this
assignment and you'll get an A, you can have a talent show, you can goof off
the whole last week of school! You think they don't do it? They do it! And
as long as they do it, they're leaving my ass alone. They aren't screaming and
hollering about their goddamn tennis or their lousy paper!
Teaching? Hell no, it ain't teaching! What do you expect? I'm telling you
that under capitalism, under this lousy, stinking social system, those kids are
fucked, and no one knows it better than they do. Under capitalism all they
can do is try to get ahead of the next kid, and they do it, they will! The best
they can think of to do, when they really try, is to copy the pitiful cringing
white petty bourgeoisie.
You've got to wait, Jim! You got to wait for the revolution! Socialism!
This isn't a school! It’s a place where those kids can find out once and for all
what they're up against, where the ruling class says in no uncertain terms to
them, Forget you! You ain't going nowhere! Go on and learn to tap-dance or
be a jitney girl, because you ain’t going nowhere.
But you, Jim, you got to live. You got your wife —your wife, Jim, who
makes that soup on those cold evenings, that beautiful kid. You got to put
those paragraphs on the board for them to copy as long as they’ll still do it.
You've got no real union here, you're alone in there, between the victims and
I could never tell if Skates was serious about the revolution or not. In the
end I thought he had believed in it once, didn't see any chance for it now, but
continued talking in terms of it anyway. It was, in a sense, a useful way of
interpreting things. I asked him if he put those paragraphs on the board, and
he said he damn well did. I asked him if it worked, and he said it did, at least
for about the first ten or fifteen minutes. After that, he said, calming down,
some of them will go on and work at something and I can play with the rest.
I figure I owe them that much.
28. Mrs. Y.-The End of Advice
Skates analyzed my situation for me: the sub (Mrs. A) had said I was
incompetent, and the consultant (Mrs. X) had come down to talk to me.
Neither she nor Grissum had been satisfied; they couldn't quite decide, so
the language supervisor (Mrs. Y) arrived in a couple more days to observe
me and my classes. It was a catastrophe.
Mrs. Y arrived in the afternoon, just in the middle of 7B's editing period—
the third stage of their composition unit. The stories had already been written
and read aloud, and now had been passed out to other kids for them to edit-
make corrections, remarks, suggestions— and give back to the writers. It was
work everyone liked; they corrected with crusading zeal and commented
freely and to length on the cover sheets I gave them. It was the only time in
the whole day when I really knew what we were doing.
Mrs. Y sat in the back of the room, watching, I suppose, the kids talking
back and forth about the papers and writing on them and showing what
they'd written to everyone else, and observing me walking around, looking
at the work, making a mark here and there, talking to a kid— the period
passed quickly. Near the end some of them read the comments which had
been made on their work and there was a lot of spirited arguing back and
forth. Then the bell rang, and I was hoping she would go on back downtown,
but no luck. She stayed there in the back of the room, nodded to me, said
nothing, didn't ask what the kids had been doing; 8B entered, and we opened
up with a dull fifteen minutes of instruction on how to use quotation marks. I
demonstrated on the board, explained, referred to pages in the book. 8B
couldn't have been less interested, but the presence of Mrs. Y— whom they
didn't know— inspired them to the kind of phony eagerness they reserved for
visits from important people like Grissum or Miss Bentley. Even that wore
off before the period was half over, but by that time I had assigned them a
bunch of sentences to punctuate with these same quotation marks, so they
had to make a show out of that too, writing furiously. By the time that wore
off, the period was over. I felt uncomfortable with Mrs. Y in the room, just
sitting there. I knew she was there to judge my work, and, considering that I
didn't know what I was doing I wished they could have waited awhile. Not
yet! I wanted to say; come around later when I’ve got it all figured out! Still I
couldn't see that it had gone badly at all. 7B had been at their best— bright,
witty and peaceable, doing something they liked to do, and 8B had conned
themselves into a semblance of respectability. Surely she’ll go on back now,
I thought, but someone must have tipped her off— she was determined to
stick around and have a look at 7H.
They came hooting up the stairs as usual, their day almost over, one more
crazy period. They flung themselves into the room shouting information,
what Boy did in Mr. Brooke's room and what Mr. Brooks say, what
Alexandra say then and so Mr. Brooks he say it ain't no business of
Alexandra's. The usual jubilant five minutes, ending up normally with the
question: What we going to do today, Mr. Herndon?
I had already given that question some thought in view of Mrs. Y. For the
first time I wished old Virgil was back so we could put on our reading
groups which looked so good to Harvey. On the other hand I'd been thinking
that it was about time to start them up again, choose some new leaders to
take Virgil's place ...why not? I thought. After all, it was about all we had to
show Mrs. Y. So I decided to try it with Judy and Wade, a big kid who read
pretty well and who didn't have any outstanding quarrels with anyone; after
some shouting to get everyone in seats and quiet, I announced we were
going to have reading groups. Immediately a chorus of yells went up, mostly
to the point of who was going to be the leader of the other group? Each one
suggested himself, and each suggestion met with loud and derogatory
comment. I proposed Wade. General outrage at my stupidity. What? Wade?
That watermelon-headed ... and so on Wade got mad then, of course, and
rose up, threatening to whip someone's black ass, and inevitably then proud
Alexandra took it upon herself to call Wade down. But poor Wade, like
everyone else there, was afraid of Alexandra so he quickly discovered he
was mad at Harvey and called him down so it would seem like he just didn't
have time for Alexandra. Everyone was standing now, rushing around to
confront someone else or yelling across the room; Boy, out of everyone's
league as far as fighting was concerned, dashing up to me to laugh and
laugh— it was a mad- house.
Still, we'd had uproars before. We had them every time some new
arrangement had to be made in the class. (We had them other times, too, for
other reasons or for no reason as far as I knew, but this kind was predictable.
I should have thought of it, in view of Mrs. Y.) The uproar meant simply
that they weren't sure what was going to happen, that as soon as it was
possible to be heard I would have to explain it to them while they examined
the proposition from every angle for hidden dangers and traps, and then we
would go ahead and try to do it or else abandon it if it proved too risky. I
mean to say I was used to it, and although Mrs. Y was still there in the back
of my mind, I thought she'd see what the panic was all about and it might
even be a useful demonstration. I got ready to begin cooling everyone off,
thinking that perhaps we should have two, maybe three more reading leaders
which would take the pressure off Wade and the group too, planning how to
explain it for all of us. I moved over to deal with Alexandra first, who by
this time was angrily claiming that Wade was trying to start a fight with her
so’s she would get in trouble and how she didn't let nobody pick on her . .
but all of a sudden everyone shut up and I looked around and saw that Mrs.
Y was standing there in front of the class.
In all my life, said Mrs. Y, I have never seen such a rude, disorderly,
29. Grissum Steps In
It was in the kids' language that Mr. Grisson’s name always came out
Grissum. They didn't intend to ridicule him; it just came out that way. In
time many of the teachers could be heard saying Grissum too, and looking
back at these pages, I find it written that way more than once. Around GW it
just seemed to fit.
He called me into his office the day after Mrs. Y's visit. Her moral lecture
to 7H about courtesy and behavior had not been a success, a fact which both
surprised and angered her. It had probably always worked for her— meaning
that the kids, whatever kids, had lowered their heads and looked ashamed
and shut up while being lectured. It probably hadn't made anyone more
courteous in the long run, as Mrs. Z, for one, would have known.
Anyway, 7H didn't take to head-lowering. They had started in immediately
to argue with her. They weren't doing anything wrong, they interrupted her
to say, Why was she coming into their room talking like that? This Mr.
Herndon's class, it ain’t yours! How come you spozed to be here telling us
what to do?
It got worse and worse. Mrs. Y couldn't believe her ears. I sat down; it was
all hers. Harvey stood up and said indignantly, We trying to get our reading
groups and you won't let us do it! Alexandra got mad and stood up too and
yelled that no one was going to tell her that she wasn't nice, whereupon Roy
yelled out that Alexandra wasn't nice nor her mama either and everyone else
laughed and Mrs. Y screeched out that she'd never been so insulted in her
entire life, and left.
Mr. Grisson wanted to know if I thought it correct that my class should be
allowed to insult a visitor. No, I didn't, I said. On the other hand, I said, no
one had insulted her at all until she got up and called the class rude. Since
she'd decided to take charge of the class, I figured she wanted to go ahead
and handle it.
He considered that. Then he said, Why do you suppose she decided to take
over your class?
Well, from what she said, she thought they were acting badly and wanted
to straighten them out. I feel she should have left them alone.
I went on to tell him what we’d been doing, explained that the uproar was
caused by the approach of a new arrangement and so on.
Did you appoint a reading leader? he asked.
Yeah, I said, I suggested a kid.
And do you think the students were going to be able to pick out a better
person to be leader?
No, I admitted that Wade was probably the best one. I tried to explain that
we would have ended up with Wade anyway, tried hurriedly to mention
7H’s fears about reading, reading leaders, but time had run out. He told me
to expect him today, last period.
The class needs a firm reprimand for yesterday's actions, he said, and
obviously he, not I, was the person to accomplish that. Also, he added, that
class is going to be here, all together, all this year. I think it best they
understand once and for all how they are to behave. And you yourself will
be able to see an excellent method for insuring that.
Last period that day 7H piled up the stairs, but stopped short when they
saw Grissum standing by the door. We all went into the room; the kids sat
down and I took up a position over by the windows. Grissum stood in front
of the class, erect, looking straight ahead— we all waited until the bell rang.
At that, Grissum told them in a few short sentences that they had
misbehaved, explained the high status of the visitor, described her shock. He
wondered if they desired it to be said downtown that GW was a school
where visitors hated to come, for fear of being insulted.
Then he told them that Mr. Herndon would pass out paper— I went over to
get it— and that they were to wait in silence while he wrote something on the
board. While he wrote, I passed out the sheets. The kids were all saying,
Thank you, Mr. Herndon, in meek voices, trying to make things right.
Grissum finished writing and turned around. He began by saying that what
he'd written was a contract. Do you know what a contract is? He told them
briefly that it meant that both sides agreed to do certain things, that neither
side was to break faith, and then he told them to copy the paragraph on the
paper I'd handed out.
The paragraph itself said something about how I the undersigned promise
to behave properly and according to the standards of GW at all times, etc. It
didn't say what Grissum or GW was promising to do for them. I stood
around, feeling vaguely as if I should be copying it down too. Grissum stood
erect and motionless in his light gray suit. No one said anything. It lasted
about fifteen minutes— it took a long time for 7H to draw those words on that
paper, for that was what most of them had to do, of course, draw those
words, leave spaces, connect those letters, space, draw some more.
Finally Grissum told them to sign their names at the bottom. They all did.
Then he went to each kid and collected his contract, shaking each one's hand
as he did so. Then, all done, he told them they'd shaken hands on the
bargain, they'd made an agreement, and he was going to keep those contracts
in his office for the rest of the year. He knew no one there was going to
break his contract. Am I right? he asked them. Yes, Mr. Grissum, we all
agreed. Good, he said firmly, and off he went.
There were about ten minutes left in the period, during which all hell broke
30. Action Now!
So the advice of the sub, the visits of Mrs. X and Mrs. Y and Grissum's
demonstration didn't do any good. If that was all they had to say, I figured I
was on my own.
Also I decided not to wait for the revolution. Perhaps that was because I
couldn't see that anyone was going to make one very soon, at least none that
would do The Tribe any good— in fact I thought that anything like that was
going to have to come from The Tribe itself. I wanted that revolution now,
in my classroom— by which I simply mean, as before, solidarity as a class for
7H and the figuring out of their own possibilities and desires for 9D. I didn't
know what any of this would mean for their futures, for the community, for
socialism, for history. I'm trying to make it clear that I was concerned for
them as they were, and where they were, now, in my class. That took care of
the paragraphs and the contracts too, whose purpose as far as I could see was
to keep The Tribe from coming to their revolution.
After the visits and advice, I was able to get going. I stopped trying to
"figure out" methods that were foolproof or "the best" and I simply started in
with everything it had occurred to me to try out.
The first thing I did was to try unashamedly to unload Roy onto my Irish
FTA comrade in Reading Improvement, but that was no go. He argued
(correctly) that R.I. was meant to improve reading, not teach it from scratch;
also he'd heard about Roy and obviously wanted no part of him. So I got
hold of the English Department chairman, another attractive and freckle-
faced Negro woman, and asked for her help with my nonreaders; she agreed
to take them individually during eighth period, when her time was free to
deal with various problems, among which presumably Roy et al, could be
included. She told me a few things about kids' problems with peer-group
conflicts, and how often they would learn better in a one-to-one relationship.
We finally decided on three new group leaders in 7H, among whom one
was Wade. The school equipment included a tape recorder which no one was
using, so we kept it. None of the three new leaders was much more skillful
than the members of their groups and so the work of the groups went on
differently than it had with Virgil and Judy— so differently that Judy didn't fit
in as a leader any more. So I took her off that job and made her a kind of
roving consultant, an expert, since she was the only one who really knew
anything and also since she had become an intolerable bully in her group.
She now roamed around snooping at flash cards and words and correcting
people mercilessly, but since she had to take care of the whole class she was
spread a bit thin and everyone was able to take it. She was also official
speller to the class, in case anyone really wanted to spell something; some
days were full of arbitrary requests which kept her busy and happy at the
board and with the dictionary.
In 9D I announced that we would continue to have regular work with the
spellers and the language book. This plan was rejected loudly by most, with
arguing and threats of rebellion. That sort of thing was OK for Mrs. A who
was a real teacher, but not for me. So I announced that this "regular" work
would be voluntary, but it would be offered. We would change seating
arrangements too, I said, so that those who wanted to try to learn this work
could be together. This was acclaimed by all as fair. May and friends formed
the obvious nucleus for the group, and several kids, wavering, joined them.
The Three C s stayed at the table. The rest of the class solidified itself on the
other side of the room around Verna, whose back was turned as it had been
since my announcement. We began the usual discussions about how this
would affect everyone; I required that enough order be maintained to allow
the "regulars" (as they were already being called) to do their studious work.
There was a good deal of questioning to see if I really meant it— the part
about voluntary, that is; when that was established they were enthusiastic
about ground rules for my behavior and theirs, settling in the main for the
system that I was to leave the no regulars strictly alone, not "bothering"
them, as long as they weren't breaking any "school rules." I did point out that
most of them were breaking several school rules all the time, especially the
ones involving eating, chewing, cosmetics (applying in class), combs
(combing hair in class), shoes (changing in class), and transistors (playing in
class). That was judged beside the point; they meant breaking them badly or
defiantly— playing the transistors loudly, throwing the food and that kind of
I also signed up for library hours for both 7H and 9D at regular periods at
least once a week. Both classes, long rejected from the library, were
astonished and exuberant. The librarian was horrified. She was a young
Italian girl, rather prim, who believed that the only purpose of the school
library was for kids to come in, get books and either take them out
immediately or else sit down there immediately and begin to read them.
Other permitted activities were (1) looking through the card file, (2) asking
the librarian questions about where to find things, whereupon she directed
them to the card file, and (3) copying sections out of the encyclopedia, an
activity which was called "research." Talking even whispering, was not a
permitted activity, since the kids were supposed to "learn how to behave in
the public libraries," as if no one ever talked in a public library.
Most of these activities worked out about as expected. Boy had gone out to
see Mrs. Bobbins (the chairman) first— a candidate, so I stated, for an
experiment in reading. He left grinning, accompanied by the outraged cries
of 7H to the effect of why didn't I pick them? Boy returned angrily at the end
of the period, threatened several kids and finally yelled that that teacher was
trying to make him do that kindergarten stuff. He brought a note with him,
quite long; its theme, briefly, was that Boy was impossible (he wouldn't sit
down, he wouldn't stop laughing, she was afraid of him) and that it was an
inefficient use of teacher time (hers) which should go to help those students
who had both the desire and the potential for learning. So the next day I sent
Vincent; he lasted two periods but then she met me at lunchtime saying that
Vincent's "mental problem— his poor eyes!" made him impossible to teach
also, meek and mild as he undoubtedly was. I told Vincent the experiment
was over, and fired off Alexandra the next day. I guess Alexandra had
figured out that non-reading was the actual subject of this experiment, for
she was back in about fifteen minutes telling me that she didn't allow
nobody to treat her like that! Mrs. Bobbins told me the next day that
Alexandra had stomped in and told her without being asked that she did so
already know how to read and threatened her with her mama, and apparently
Mrs. Bobbins didn't allow nobody to treat her like that either. Besides, Mrs.
Bobbins told me, she was going to be working now with "a group of ninth-
grade (A) girls who were going to put out the Year-book" and expected her
eighth-period time would be pretty much required by them. She informed
me too that with kids like Boy and Alexandra, often a one-to-one basis
amounted to pampering, and it was perhaps more necessary that they work
on adjustment to their peer-group situation. Anyway their records didn’t
indicate that they were nonreaders, and was I sure? I told her I'd look into it;
Harvey never got his turn at the big experiment.
The tape recorder was something of a success with 7H. Several of the kids
got proficient at running it, for one thing. We used it once a week all by
itself, with the condition that anyone who could or would read something out
of our collection of books, or else read something they'd written themselves,
would be recorded and played back. It worked out, of course, that many kids
just got up and orated into it, but after the first few times there was little of
that; group readings were popular after awhile, several kids taking a story
and splitting it up, and when we got through an entire story we were able to
play it back with pretty great admiration for ourselves. Boy and Harvey
almost always had something perfectly memorized for the occasion and
recited brilliantly, holding the book before them in a professional manner. I
couldn't see that it did any harm, and, oddly enough, it didn't affect those
who could read. They never memorized anything themselves, but kept on
stumbling laboriously through unfamiliar passages, enduring the transparent
mockery of Boy. Vincent was allowed to recite on occasion without holding
the book; we were sympathetic with his problem. Alexandra alone would
never read or speak even her name into the machine, suspicious, perhaps,
that some trap was concealed in it. During recording days she could be heard
sometimes muttering warnings against the machine from the back of the
We also used the recorder on spot occasions to tape sessions with the
reading groups. Listening to these later, I was always amazed at the
interminable personal argument, threat and counter threat which went on
over the simplest matters. For it can't be assumed that with the groups
arranged again, the recorder, etc., the class now went smoothly. We now had
a number of things going in the room— the groups were expanded to include
spelling and writing groups, where the kids tried to use their (second- and
third-grade) spellers, the leaders asking words, or having the kids make up
sentences from the words, or the groups could choose from a selection of
games like simple Scrabble, or spin-the-pointer games where they had to
pick a card and follow printed instructions. (The school had a number of
these for use on rainy days when kids had to stay inside at lunch, and 7H had
brought some of their own too.) We had our library periods, our films
(shortly after this time). Still, most of the time each period was spent arguing
about what they were going to do or weren't; if they were, then who was
going to do it; battling each other about their tennis, or about whose fault it
was that Mr. Brooks was coming to keep them. Each school day seemed to
furnish them with enough material for a lifetime's complaint, and they were,
most times, unable to see each other as anything but potential and
momentary allies or enemies.
9D's problem didn't change either; we now had some activity going on
besides the interminable discussion but only in addition to it, not instead of
it. Here I should say that my advisers were all correct in their feeling (the
feeling I'm sure lay behind all their advice) that once a class sees that you
are really going to discuss their possible activities with them, really dele-
gate or even give up all this wonderful authority the school system has
endowed you with, once you allow kids in a class to do only what they
themselves want to do even if this doesn't happen to turn out to be what you
want them to do — once this happens, you can't ever take charge and order
them about again with any success. Many teachers who enter into this kind
of thing with a class, by way of experiment— to see if it will work— suffer
disappointment because of this fact. But that is because they've somehow
been led to expect that a class of kids will, if left to make their own
decisions, decide to do what the teacher planned to do— homework, read the
text, do those sentences and exercises. The class won't. Why should it?
Given a taste of something like that, they aren't likely to want to give it up
very soon, seeing as how it is really a kind of freedom. These teachers then
finally come to believe that it is simply a hindrance to instruction, to their
method, and of course it is. For myself I didn't see it as hampering anything
since in itself it was my method as far as I had one. The only thing I had
against it was that it was going too slowly (or possibly nowhere at all), it
was a hell of a lot of work, nerve racking, and, of course, too damn noisy.
But now at least we had a prearranged method of beginning class which,
really, everyone could approve. I was to review yesterday's work with the
regulars over by the windows, assign something else, explain the
assignment, and help them to get started on the next leg of their long journey
toward the land of private secretaries. There were some real advantages here.
The main thing was that during this time no one could ask me some leading
question, like: Mr. Herndon, if Lowell throw a apple at some girl out in the
yard and say that Robert did it, and if the girl then come over and kick
Robert, do Robert have the right to beat Lowell’s fuzzy head off with a
stick? That is, they could ask, and did, but they didn't have the right to ask,
and I, on the other hand, did have the right to refuse to answer. The other
advantage was of course that it satisfied the regulars, who after all had the
right to do what they wanted also, even if that happened to be receiving
instruction from me.
The regulars varied in number from day to day, although sometime during
the year everyone joined it just to see how it was— everyone but Verna. The
normal regular enrollment was from eight to ten, and of these some worked
conscientiously every day at spellers, exercises, punctuation, paragraphs, et
al; they refused to get involved in anything "unofficial" or "creative"— they
would write stories, for instance, if the book suggested they do so, but not
otherwise. Some of the regulars sat there each day listening to assignment
and explanation but didn't do any of the work. I didn't comment either
way— about who worked, joined, didn't work. I felt I’d already given my
opinion on its value and it was up to them.
The tape recorder, by the way, was of no interest to 9D, outside of a couple
of kids who liked to fool with it and see how it worked. They weren't
impressed with it and didn't need it. I tried, for instance, to get them
interested in making up disc-jockey programs and recording them, with
records, commercials, talk, etc, but they couldn't see it. If they wanted a
disc-jockey program, they told me, all they had to do was to listen to their
Japanese transistors; they weren’t interested in pretending. It was the same
story with classroom movies which 7H, above all, loved; 9D rejected them,
didn't want to see them, didn't want to be interrupted by them.
9D was, by contrast, quite impressed with my proposed library period. As
long as it lasted, it was the only time when they fell back into the usual
school attitude— namely, that I as teacher, was "taking them" somewhere.
After the first few minutes of the first visit, when they saw clearly that the
librarian was alarmed by them, they demanded their regular turn, and
marched in like an invading army. They roamed through the place touching
books, opening and closing catalog drawers, making sure everyone could see
they were allowed the freedom of the place. These activities were of course
within the scope of the librarian's approval, as they well knew, but the only
trouble was that the goal of this activity— the finding of a book and sitting
down to read it or copy it— was something they never did. After the first or
second visit, it was clear that the only thing they liked to do in there was to
sit or stand by the big front window and watch the streetcars, passersby,
buses— and talk to each other about the sights. Naturally these two activities
were forbidden on the grounds that they weren't what the library was for.
Interestingly enough, the regulars got into more trouble than anyone else;
they wouldn't leave their various workbooks behind in class and had no time
for anything so frivolous as browsing or "free reading," and of course
working in textbooks or workbooks wasn't allowed in the library since that
also wasn't what the library was for. The librarian was continually
demanding that they stop working in these books, and the regulars kept on
trying to tell her about their serious and compelling need to do it. I took
them to the library for about five or six weeks before they regained their
senses and refused to go, on the reasonable grounds that there wasn't
anything there that they wanted to do. Two or three kids who actually
wanted to check out books and read were sent regularly by me, subject to the
librarian's approval, which worked out fine. 7H was, as usual, was
something else. They rushed on the library as if to devour it before it could
get away. Every kid snatched as many books off the shelves as he could hold
and hurried off with them to a table, sat, and angrily surrounded them with
his arms against attack. They grabbed any kind of book— novels, science,
encyclopedias, the bigger the better, rushed through the stack in about five
minutes, and were up for another pile or else trying to take likely looking
volumes from other kids' tables. Unlike 9D, who all wanted to sit around
one table together (forbidden), 7H each wanted a table to himself (also
forbidden). The librarian was horrified. I didn't blame her. I was horrified
myself, and I already knew them. She demanded their attention and
obedience to library rules, but no one heard. What they were doing was vital,
had to be done. She turned to me. Who were these kids? Could they read?
Why did I bring them? She was really upset. This couldn't possibly go on; I
was not to think of bringing them again. I tried to tell her that if they came
regularly and got the idea that the books were always going to be there and
they could always have a look at them, they might be able to settle down and
take it a little easy. She didn't believe it, and I wasn't sure I did. I added,
though, that they were all students at GW and ought to be allowed a chance
at this privilege. We agreed finally to try it again. She was to look around for
some books that they might actually be able to read when they came next
time, which seemed a good idea, and I was really pleased and impressed
with her that she even thought about allowing them back. Since it was the
last period, we were able to make 7H stay around and help re-shelve the
books, and that made a good impression.
The next time we came down, she was all set with a lot of possible books—
things from "easy reading" all the way down to absolute beginning books,
the kind that are large and have pages made up of a big picture and a few
words underneath, alphabet books, for instance. We were prepared and
managed to get them seated before they got hopelessly lost in their lust for
the research volumes. She started talking to them about these new books,
and pulled them out of the shelves here and there, but of course 7H
recognized them all as them kindergarten and baby books and who did she
think they were? Finally released, they rushed as before for the heavy, thick,
erudite-looking volumes and uproar followed. Fortunately the librarian,
being a librarian, hadn't just put all those kindergarten books out by
themselves on a table, but had painstakingly integrated them with the other
fiction, or nonfiction, however it was. Therefore 7H, many of whom really
wanted to have a look at them, was able to sneak these baby books out of the
stacks and conceal them among their other tomes; during the period I could
see quite a few kids staying in one place for awhile as they read about
Johnny and the Fire Engine, behind a tall stack of the Junior Harvard
It is one of the greatest difficulties at a Junior High to find material for
slow-reading kids to read. A1 the books written in simple enough language
are always books for little kids; not only are these always identifiable as
such and therefore beyond the pale, but they are also too childish in subject
matter. It’s been forgotten somehow along the way that slow readers aren't
necessarily slow in other ways, aren't less grown-up than fast readers— in any
case, they certainly aren't interested in the things first-graders are.
At GW there was the added difficulty that none of these books
acknowledged anywhere within its covers the existence of Negroes or of a
real lower class of any sort, and they often, even with their childishness,
assumed a wealth of experience that The Tribe simply wasn't up to. One day
in 7H, for example, I opened up a book to a picture of some people camping
beside a lake in a tent.
Look at them crazy people, Roy roared out. They so poor they have to go
live in a tent! There was some disbelief expressed at this shocking
circumstance, and Harvey shouted out that they ain't crazy, them is Indians,
that why they live in that tent ! But everybody could see they weren't Indians
at all, they didn't have the right clothes. Even 7B was upset by the idea,
expressed in a story we read one day, that a kid their age might go all over
town by himself and even get on a bus and go out of town to the airport and
watch the planes take off— they thought that extremely far-fetched and
In a way this very lack of experience— this common, ordinary American
experience taken for granted by the writers of these books— helped us out for
once. For 7H wasn't really bored by these childish books. Somehow they'd
never gotten around to reading about Johnny and the Fire-Engine, or about
Cowboy Small, Captain Small, or Policeman Small, and many of them were
anxious to make up for lost time, their only problem being how to remain
undetected while doing it. So after a few weeks I began to feel the library
period was something of a success with them. True, Roy remained
uncontrollable and had to be kicked out almost every time; others
occasionally joined him, and it wasn't quite the studious, pleasant period we
enjoyed with 7B.
Just how unlike that it was became clear to me suddenly one period when
Roy, who had been sent out in the hall, reappeared with Miss Bentley right
behind him. She asked me why Roy was out in the hall, and I said it was just
that he couldn't let the other kids alone and I'd sent him out there to cool off
a bit. All the time she was looking around and I saw 7H through her eyes.
There they were, sitting one to a table behind huge stacks of books,
crouching down low with their big, bright preschool reading material,
fussing at each other all the time, various kids squabbling over an impressive
volume, standing, rushing to the shelves, staggering back with an armload. It
occurred to me I'd been with 7H too long. I could see that this library period,
which I'd just been thinking was a pretty successful one, appeared to Miss
Bentley as a most disgusting spectacle, and indeed she asked me if I truly
thought 7H needed to use the library. I said that I thought if they wanted to
go, they should be taken even though I knew they had some trouble using
the facilities properly, and she left.
The next day she saw me at lunch and talked to me about it. She told me
that often teachers who thought they were providing some kind of equal
opportunity were really just avoiding their responsibilities. I felt she thought
I was taking them to the library in order to loaf, to get the librarian to help
me control them, to let the kids goof off. I feel, she said, that groups should
use facilities when they are ready to do so properly. If they are not, they do
not raise themselves up to the level of the majority, but pull the majority
down to their level. And that, at GW, would be most unfortunate indeed.
She left it at that. Committed, we rolled in and out of the library, regulars
and non-regulars, readers and nonreaders, going somewhere, I hoped, not yet
convinced that that somewhere was straight up the creek.
3 1 . Honorable Mention
During Christmas vacation I had come across Paul Roberts' book Patterns
of English, the first (and at that time, the only) high-school English text
based on modern linguistics or structural grammar. I knew little about
linguistics and so learned a good deal myself from it, but what impressed me
about it was that the exercises for the students to do seemed at one and the
same time very practical and extremely interesting. I immediately tried them
out on 7B when I came back, and they were a great success.
Very briefly, the idea was to teach kids the various different kinds of
words (the "parts of speech") by the way in which they occurred in
sentences— within the sentence structure— instead of according to the
meaning of the word. That is, a word wasn't to be called a noun because it
was a person, place or thing necessarily, but because it occurred in normal
sentences in a certain way. If you took the sentence "The — is new," you
could see that only certain words would fit that blank, and those words we
could call nouns or anything else; whatever they meant, they still were the
only kinds of words that would fit there.
This seemed simple and interesting, and 7B was enthusiastic. They learned
the various "patterns" easily, and by the time the year was over had gone
through about half the book, which was meant for upper-grade high-school
kids. I began now to try it out with 9D and 7H and the results were,
relatively, quite as good. The regulars in 9D disapproved because it wasn't in
their book, but they did it anyway because I told them they'd get graded on
it. I was allowed to make this kind of statement to the regulars. We did these
patterns once a week and on that day almost everyone became a regular.
They enjoyed making up huge lists of words that would fit certain patterns,
and became fairly sure of themselves when it came to naming the patterns.
The opposite exercise, that of taking a nonsense sentence and trying to figure
out which words were nouns, adjectives, etc., was a great favorite; it had all
the virtues, being new, fun and not difficult.
We did this once a week in 7H too; they particularly liked to take the
simple patterns and provide rhyming words for them and would go so far as
to write these down, many of them, and to comment on which rhyming
words looked the same, which pairs didn't. Pretty soon I was able to get the
group leaders to provide simple patterns and get some response from their
This is a plug for Roberts' book, then. Did I mention 8B? Well, 8B didn't
care about patterns I must admit. But for 7B the work was stimulating and
new and, I felt, more real (certainly more accurate) as a way of studying
grammar. With 9D and 7H, it was the only thing I was able to point to as
something I was teaching them, in the ordinary classroom sense, and I was
happy about that.
I believe it was in the middle of February that we had a diversion in 7H in
the form of a real, live, freckled, red-haired, white, Okie girl, who appeared
in class one day, enlivened us for two weeks, and was gone. Her name was
Melanie put everyone straight the first day. She announced that she would
like to invite all the kids in the class home with her, but her aunt didn't allow
no niggers in the house. No colored, she amended, and made it clear that it
was the aunt who put it that way: no niggers.
Oddly enough, this didn't bother anyone in 7H. In the first place Melanie
spent most of her time flirting and carrying on with all the boys in the class
and when I drove up in the mornings I always saw her perched up on the
fireplug on the comer surrounded by boys, talking and laughing as they all
showed off. Second, she was friendly with the girls; Alexandra took a great
liking to her and was even rather sad, I thought, when Melanie left.
The great revelation was that Melanie, although white as they come, wasn't
any smarter than the rest of 7H. She could read a little, but not as much as
Wade, let alone Judy. She opened up a world of possibilities to 7H. She
talked freely about her aunt's many "uncles," how often they came around,
what they did, how long they stayed, and she told long stories of her rambles
around the town which always seemed to end up in the bus station
downtown— a long way from GW, where most of the kids in 7H had never
been, or at least not by themselves. If you get out of the neighborhood, she'd
tell them, they don't bother you about any curfew!
This reportage both pleased and shocked 7H, who somehow began to think
that if old Melanie could roam around downtown and talk about her aunt,
maybe they could too; if not right now, then someday —it wasn't unthinkable
She always ended her stories in the bus station. There she would always
think, she told her listeners, whether or not she shouldn't just get on one of
them buses and go some where. Where? What to do? Just wherever that bus
is going, Melanie would tell them, it don't matter to me. Even Boy would
shut up then; it was too damn exciting to laugh about. But as I say, after
those two weeks she just wasn't around any more. We weren't usually
informed about what happened to kids who dropped out, but of course 7H
had their own idea
33. Time's Winged Chariot, with Plantation Club
February and March are dull times in the morning sports page— nothing but
the interminable scoring of pro basketball teams and a vague sense of
something about minor-league hockey. The season made itself felt at GW at
least superficially. It was the beginning of the second semester and although
it was impossible to see just how, it was clear that except for the non-regular
wing of 9D we were pretty stable. It wasn't a big change.
7H still made as much noise coming up the stairs, they still panicked about
the roll slips, still defended against surprise attacks about reading, still
lugged the World Book down in volumes from the library shelves; in 9D
May and the regulars still worked steadily toward the promised land though,
and 7H now demanded their schedule even if, on schedule, they refused to
do what they were spozed to. They wanted to know what they were
rejecting. Only the radicals, led or perhaps only symbolized by Verna, still
toyed with cosmetics, criticism and the number of angels who could dance
on the head of a pin.
It looked like a stalemate. Yet any kind of theory of history would have
told us differently, and even the sports page began to tell us that some
baseball team was contemplating a trade, a new manager; indeed, we had a
few changes too about this time.
With the second semester, for instance, we finished with Social Studies in
7B and began a semester of science. Opal Jameson now came into her glory
as caretaker of our equipment for the miraculous experiments and
demonstrations which I painstakingly figured out in theory from the manuals
and which Opal herself actually made work. Under her capable hands and air
of exasperation the coil and nail magnets worked like they spozed to, the
balloons inflated and deflated over the fire, the gas bubbling in the pan
actually turned out to be oxygen or hydrogen or carbon dioxide, the wood
splinters flamed or went out, the gallon cans crushed themselves inward. I
hadn't heard from Mrs. X or Mrs. Y; nothing had been forthcoming from
Grissum about the voice lessons; no one had visited my room. Skates's
attitude toward GW had soured a bit. He began writing applications to other
districts, claiming that inevitable (and therefore right) as the existence of
The Tribe was "under capitalism," that didn't make them any easier to be
In 8B Ruth began to be impossible about every third day. She'd gotten
along quite well all year, causing, it's true, minor disturbances almost every
period, but she'd always been willing to stop, satisfied, apparently, with little
demonstrations of power. Stopping was what counted. She had even been a
rather good student, in terms of 8B— she liked recitation, "giving answers,"
and was always willing to talk about stories we read in class, mainly, it's
true, in order to point out how stupid one of the characters had been. These
days she seemed determined to carry on every argument all period; that was
going to be all we could talk about, who did what and to whom, whose fault
everything was, why she didn't have to give back the other kid's shoes or
jacket or pencil. Since the rest of 8B used her as an excuse to raise hell, I
couldn't allow her this luxury and sent her out of the room or to the office. I
had to stop that, though, because she made a terrible racket in the hall, or
came back from the office with long tales about what she told Miss Bentley
and what Miss Bentley said about you, Mr. Herndon.... Finally I began
sending her over to Skates's room once in awhile. Skates rather enjoyed
arguing with her and she liked him; he flattered her and almost always put
her in a good humor so that she could come back in ten or fifteen minutes
happy as hell, telling me briefly how smart Skates had said she was and what
a lousy teacher I was in contrast to Mr. Skates. Thus we held the line with
her into March, but in the second week of March she indulged herself in the
Plop Reflex twice.
In 9D Leon LaTore stopped coming to class— not just to my period. He
didn't come to any classes. He didn't stop coming to school. He came on
time, and spent the day roaming the halls or the yard, joining his class at
passing periods to talk, going with them, stopping short at the door of
whatever classroom they went into, and going on. He had been gloomy,
sarcastic and disapproving all year, sitting in the back saying Sh! at all
proposals, otherwise disturbing no one, simply uncommunicative and
withdrawn. He now became the brand-new subject for the intellectuals of
9D, for the odd thing was that Leon LaTore didn't come to class the rest of
the year. Everyone knew that the teachers sent in slips on him, but nothing
happened. He didn't stop coming to school, he didn't go to the office or to
the counselors, or if he did (the kids swore he didn't) nothing resulted from
it, he didn't go to Juvi-he didn't go anywhere, just kept on wandering the
halls and the yards, eating lunch in the cafeteria like everyone else. Kids
began to speak of students beaten up by him, of teachers threatened in the
halls, of his talk about setting the fires in the big cans in the halls, which
now became almost daily events, but nothing happened. In the teachers'
room it was spoken of as a scandal. Something had better be done, was the
consensus, before all the kids quit coming to class. In that opinion— that
something should be done— they were in agreement with the non-regulars of
9D, who said that Leon LaTore was going to get into trouble if he didn't
Skates told me that a number of his ninth-graders were coming in after
lunch half drunk, and the kids all said they were buying wine from Leon
LaTore at a nickel a drink. Skates was in favor of the whole thing, both
because it was a revolutionary act and because the student drunks were too
sleepy in class to cause any trouble or make any noise.
I agreed with Skates that just being around The Tribe was an exhausting
task, and perhaps Leon La- Tore agreed too and decided he too had had
enough of it; after all he wasn't getting paid.
I began to stop regularly at the Plantation Club after school for a beer or
two. I wasn't riding with Skates for the time being— he'd moved out on his
old landlady and was unsettled; he couldn't be responsible for getting
anywhere on time right then.
The Plantation had South Seas decor, a good jukebox and was dark and
warm. There were always several businessmen from the Negro hotel next
door— a traveling man's hotel, as the bartender said. The men talked about
their prospects, about what was happening in town, in other towns. The
bartender often treated me in an extravagant Uncle Tom manner; at these
times he would hurry to serve me, wipe off the bar over and over, ask me if
the beer was cold enough, if I was comfortable, if the music was too loud or
not loud enough. At other times he would ignore me completely when I
came in, waiting until the last minute before I would begin to think about
getting up to leave, at which instant he would hurry over and become Uncle
Tom again. I couldn't see any resemblance between the salesmen here and
The Tribe, and indeed whenever I tried to imagine The Tribe grown up I
found I couldn't do it. I could only imagine them now; Skates would have
said I had no sense of history. I counted on something happening in my
classes and soon, hoping I could hold out long enough for it. I counted on it.
It did occur to me now that perhaps it wouldn't; there were too many things
against it, the school structure, other teachers, America itself. Even if it
happened, I couldn't imagine the eventual result, if any. What difference
would it make, would my teaching make, in their grown-up lives? I didn't
care. I wouldn't have been able to say if I wanted them to turn into the
salesmen at the Plantation or not.
Well, I waited to see what would happen with Leon LaTore. His actions
weren't exactly in line with Grissum's idea of order, certainly— it was an
interesting confrontation, the more so since all I had to do was to keep on
sending in the absence slips.
Life was getting more difficult at GW. The halls were noisier, there were
more fights and more fires, classrooms were harder for teachers to control
The talk in the teachers' room was entirely about unruly students.
Assemblies were canceled for all time, announced Grissum from the stage in
the middle of the last one, evoking a chorus of Sh !
7H became personally involved in things when two bottles of wine were
found in Roy's locker after some drunken culprit informed on him, and Roy
went off for two weeks. According to 7H, who told the story in their usual
mixture of glee, envy and regret, the counselors had to chase Roy twice
around the hall before they finally caught up with him. According to
Alexandra, who admired Roy because she couldn't whip him Roy was
selling the wine for Leon LaTore. The wine itself was one of those new
brands of sweet- tasting, cheap, high-alcohol-content stuff put out and
advertised by large California wineries with a direct appeal to Negroes; I
told Skates that at a nickel a drink they couldn't make any money from the
sales, but he said that the point of capitalism wasn't to make money any
more but merely to keep business going, and that Leon LaTore was simply
doing what any intelligent man could see was the trend.
Along with all this, however, the spring was to bring us some happenings
in 9D and an addition to 7H. These turned out to be what I'd been looking
for all along, and are entitled Slambooks, Top Forty, Cinderella and Movie
Day in the following chapters.
I still have an ordinary yellow-covered notebook which used to belong to
Cerise. Open the cover, and there is a page decorated in ink with curlicues
and flourishes which enclose a paragraph. The paragraph states that "This is
the Slambook belonging to Cerise, who says that nobody can read it without
her permission and also anyone who steals it is guilty of a crime." It was all
spelled correctly and signed in an elegant and un-readable script.
On the next page there is a list, numbered, of the students of 9D, and this is
the key to what follows. For on each of the following pages there is the
name of a kid, and on that page other kids have been invited to comment on
his or her character, appearance, courage, brains or wealth, signing
themselves only with a number corresponding to the key in the front. The
beauty of this system is that the owner of the Slambook may then show the
comments to the kid whose name is at the top of the page and have the
pleasure of listening to him beg and plead with her to see the first page so
that he may identify the commentators, the girl who said he was good-
looking or the boy who said he was chicken. The authors of the remarks can
also plead for her not to show that first page, and the owner thus becomes
the center of frantic social activity.
I picked this Slambook up from the floor after the class left one period;
when I gave it back to Cerise the next day, saying I didn't want to be guilty
of a crime, she said it was already out of date and she had another, so I could
Slambooks suddenly took precedence over everything. The Three C's had
them one day; everyone else was making them the next. Since this was more
work than many had done the entire year, I was delighted. They were avidly
writing in them, not perhaps in complete sentences or according to the other
standards expected for class work, but the books were carefully made, the
names spelled right, the style of the opening paragraph elegant and
complicated and formal. The socializing surrounding them was also
somewhat more restrained than usual, for the Slambooks had to be read, not
just talked about, and also because shouting and threatening didn't do any
good since the owner could then pretend to be insulted and refuse to disclose
the contents or the key. All of the regulars fled the window area with its
complete sentences and syllables and made their own Slambooks, so the
activity was general. From the appearance and behavior of the class they
might have been involved in some kind of engrossing class project or group
work, discussing their progress with each other, and writing entries into
notebooks to be reported on later with the results of their research,
discussion and inquiry.
I wasn't invited to see the contents, of course, but I had Cerise's book and
read it thoroughly, turning back to the front to identify the authors. I had to
admit it was a pretty interesting way to spend a class period. I had expected
to see a series of fairly nasty remarks, plenty of sexual invitation, and much
bad talk in general; the expectation was based on the general prejudice we
bring to anything teen-agers do of their own accord, and to the particular
teen-agers of GW especially, and so it was wrong. I was shown again, for
perhaps the hundredth time, that 9D was a group of children, not of
dangerous hoodlums. In Cerise's book, only middle-aged May and
revolutionary Leon LaTore compelled real improprieties. Someone had
written "big tit" on May's page, and Verna had written a contemptuous "fuck
him" on Leon LaTore's. Insult was taken care of in the traditional way with
"big lip" and "monkey" getting their share of space. Still, even insults were
usually compensated for; Robert, for instance, in addition to being called
"the little black boy" and "too white," drew the admiring comment from
Verna "Don't mess with him if you want to live." Several kids drew remarks
like "smart cookie" and "plenty brains," or the reverse— "Think he smart, but
I know better," or "Too dumb." It was always news to me in 9D if someone
was thought unusually intelligent or the reverse. However, the hulk of the
comment and most of the admiring remarks concerned the areas of looks and
clothes. The Three C's were tops, naturally: "Boss hair," "boss lips," "boss
clothes," "boss complexion" appeared over and over again on their pages,
the word "boss" having replaced "tough" sometime during the year as the hip
synonym for good, beautiful, etc. The rest of the girls drew quite a bit of
unfavorable comment about hair or head, but something good was always
found by someone-they were discovered to have boss legs or boss clothes or
The boys were generally judged on the score of their manliness, athletic
ability or personality and the word to describe their good qualities was
usually the word "bad." Bad, in the Slambooks, meant either actually tough
("Think he bad!") or something like grown-up or mature ("He handsome and
bad!") or that he was very good at something ("Bad man with a basket-
It's probably useful to comment on another aspect of the Slambooks— that
is, they were a good demonstration of my relations with the other teachers at
GW. We’d gone through, or would go through, the yo-yo season, the water-
gun season, the paper-plane season, the clothespin-gun season and had duly
confiscated all of these articles and tried in our various ways to stamp out
these unruly activities. The whole talk now in the teachers' room was about
Slambook season and voices rose in excited competition about how many
had been confiscated or destroyed and how many wastebaskets and drawers
they'd filled with Slambooks, and also how wasteful of time and materials
Slam- books were and how difficult they made instruction. Methods for
ridding CW of Slambooks forever were discussed and, I guess, tried out.
The trouble was that at the same time these discussions were going on full
blast down in the teachers' room, I was likely to be up with 9D being
delighted that they were finally writing something down, pleased with
the general and rather orderly activity in the room and interested in the
results, which seemed to me at least as accurate as, say, a sociogram.
Anyway, this made serious discussion with those teachers rather difficult,
not to say irrelevant; they were trying to put a stop to the very activity I was
encouraging. It didn't bother me or make me angry— they weren't trying to
stop it in my room, having all they could do to handle their own aspiring
writers, and their attitude was consistent with what they'd always said they
believed, thought, about their own classes.
Again, I'd been in there with 9D too long; all I could see was that they'd
finally come across something that needed to be written down to be
successful or interesting to them, which couldn't even exist without writing,
and they were doing it as enthusiastically as possible.
35. Top Forty
The reason for the Slambooks' existence was that it was Slambook season.
It had nothing to do with me— I only welcomed it. It was the same with the
next event in 9D, which began around the same time. It was, I think, the day
I started reading Cerise's book that Estelle came in the room and, instead of
going over to sit down, went to the board and began to write a list of current
popular songs on it.
Estelle was a tall, big girl, middle in the hierarchy of skin color, hair,
features, etc., and middle in other ways too. She wasn't a regular, being too
hip for that, but neither was she an out-and-out radical. Not being one of the
Three C's, who were just themselves and felt they needed no other identity,
she belonged to the considerable portion of the class who might be found
one day with the regulars, another day grouped around Verna, more often
neither writing nor discussing great issues, only sitting there in the class.
This morning, as far as I could tell, she simply felt like writing the tune titles
on the board and did it, in contrast to fifty other mornings she might have
felt like doing it and didn't.
The Top Forty, of course, were those forty rock- 'n'-roll songs played— over
and over, all day long— by the disc jockeys of the local rock- 'n'-roll station.
Estelle only planned to write down the first twenty— at least current popular
songs on it, that’s all she did write down, and later on twenty became
established as the proper number although we all still called it the Top Forty.
It? Well, it soon be- came an it. As kids noticed Estelle chalking up titles,
they began to question the validity of the action— as in, Mr. Herndon you
going to let her do that?— and next to question her performance. They were
sharp by now; all I had to do in answer to the first question was indicate
their own activities with the Slambooks. There was immediate attention to
proper spelling, proper order, simple correctness of Estelle's titles, and
Estelle made a couple of changes. During this time, the first ten or fifteen
minutes of the period, the class was going about its business with
Slambooks, but Estelle had added a dimension. Top Forty became a thing, a
program, like the pledge of allegiance (or a paragraph on the board for
everyone to copy). Something everyone could expect to start the class with
from now on, except of course that almost everyone thought it was
something important in itself, which made the difference.
The next day there was an uproar due to the fact that some ten kids came
dashing into class determined to put the Top Forty on the board. They
shoved and argued and scrambled for space and chalk; four or five winners
had already begun lists. Somehow it had been accepted that we were going
to have Top Forty, but nothing had been done about who was going to do it.
Estelle loudly claimed prior privilege; everyone knew she was right, but no
one gave in. I had to order them all to their seats, shouting and yelling as
Grissum correctly said. I said that if they wanted the list on the board, they'd
have to figure out some way to do it without so much fuss. We didn't need
more arguing and more noise, I submitted.
They began to argue about how to stop arguing. I kept out of it. Sometime
during the debate Verna, who wasn't participating in it, came up to me
asking something like what did I know about the Top Forty? Well, I knew
quite a bit about it, since I listened to this same Top Forty every day on the
way to school and said so. She looked at me in her own way— which was a
look that somehow said, I don't believe anything you say in advance, but I'll
take a chance and ask anyway— and asked me if I liked rock 'n' roll. I told
her I thought most of the songs were lousy, but that there were always one or
two I really liked and that was more than I could say for any of the other
popular music being written right then. So she asked, still suspending
judgment, which ones of the current list, the one still not up on the board, I
liked. I told her "Stagolee" particularly, and then to one by the Everly
Brothers— I now forget what it was. She just nodded. It was one of the few
times I'd spoken to her that she didn't say Sh! Encouraged, I went on to say
that "Stagolee" came from an old song that had the words a little different
and the tune a little different, but was about the same, and it was originally
supposed to be about a real man.
Sh! said Verna scornfully, ending it. She knew that every song in the Top
Forty was the newest thing there was, and all that about its being an old song
was crap. I said, well, I had an old book at home that was full of old songs
and it had this song "Stagolee" in it, so what about that? I have to see it
before I believe it, she said. Bring it on down here.
I had the book all right, although it wasn't actually a very old book. It
looked like the oldest book in the world though; a friend of mine once wrote
down all the country and Western, cowboy, folk, hillbilly and blues tunes he
knew, which was plenty, printed it in pencil or ink and bound it and sent it to
me in Europe so I wouldn't forget all the songs we both knew. "Stagolee"
was in there. Even if the book was only about five years old, that was older
than the Top Forty by a long shot, and old enough for Verna.
When I brought it, the next day, she was impressed. That book so old they
didn't even have no printing machines then, Mr. Herndon, she told me. She
found "Stagolee," and asked me if she could keep the book for the day and I
said OK. All through the period I could see her looking through the book at
the songs, "The Great Speckled Bird," "The Wabash Cannon-ball," "Frog
Went a-Courting" ... I didn't feel bad about it; after all, "Stagolee" was a
pretty old song.
After school she brought the book back. She told me she guessed it was all
right to use them old songs if they was good to start with, and if they
brought them up to date. She'd checked to see if there were any more Top
Forty songs in there but hadn't found any, although later on there were a few,
"Irene" and "Frog Went a-Courting" I remember particularly. She asked me
if I wanted those Top Forty tunes on the board every day. I said it was fine
with me, but without all the uproar. She agreed with that. That all we do in
this class is fuss, she said. Why do you let them fuss so? I said I thought if
they could ever get it all out of their systems, they might stop. Otherwise, I
said, they'd never really stop it; they'd just be waiting until I let go a second
and there they'd be at it again. What was the good of that? I wanted to know.
Verna didn't agree. She didn't think they'd ever get it out of their systems
one way or the other. However, if I wanted the Top Forty on the board, she
would see they did it right and without no fussing.
We let it go at that. I remembered that in Cerise's Slambook, along with
the remarks "big leg" and "tall and tough," someone had written under
Verna's name " The Boss!"
During library periods with my classes I kept looking in the back
storeroom for anything I could use with my classes. I came across an entire
series of playbooks containing familiar stories dramatized; there were
three volumes to the set, and enough copies of each so that each kid in the
class could have one to use. We had used these off and on in 7B and 8B as a
kind of break, something different— reading them aloud, taking the parts and
often recording the performance and playing it back for our amusement. I
kept the whole set stacked in a comer of the room, since the librarian said
that no one else ever used them, and occasionally kids from 9D or 7H would
take a look at them.
One of these days, near the beginning of the period in 9D, with the
regulars hard at work or not- work, the Slambooks going through their
courses, the Top Forty being laboriously written on the board under the
watchful eye of Verna and a few critics, I was astonished to see the Three
C's approaching my desk in a body. It was, to my knowledge, the first time
during the year they had voluntarily left their table at all, let alone come near
the teacher's desk. They were all three clutching playbooks and asked me
why couldn’t we read these plays out loud in class, everyone taking the
Why not? I'd already tried to get 9D interested in play-reading some time
before, but the radicals weren't interested and the regulars hadn't the time to
spare. So I said it was a fine idea, but who was going to do the reading?
It was an idiotic question. With the Three C's planning to do something,
everyone in the class was suddenly eager to take part. The C's own big table
was quickly moved up to the front of the room— ten boys shoving each other
for the honor of grabbing hold of it— desks shoved out of the way, folding
chairs set around it. Trouble began as twenty kids dived for space around the
table. I yelled. Everyone finally fell back, and taking the easy way out, I
announced that the Three C's, having introduced the idea, could pick out the
players. There followed plenty of threats and counter threats, some refusals-
in-advance-of expected- rejection, an incipient Plop Reflex or two; the C's
finally extorted enough promises from about ten individuals, and, with
perhaps fifteen minutes left in the period, they began to read the play. That
was the first time I realized that the play the C’s were so excited about was
"Cinderella." It was a terrible reading all the way around. Unprepared, the
kids stumbled and read too fast, giggled among themselves or argued, forgot
their turns in haste to correct someone else, and the audience, prepared at
first to listen, soon lost interest and drifted back to their spellers, Slambooks
The source of the trouble was the Three C's, naturally. In their haste they
had picked "Cinderella" because they saw there was a Prince and a fancy-
dress ball and two sisters who were going to that ball; they saw themselves
starring— dancing, dining, diamonds shining and all. They weren't prepared
to find Cinderella the heroine and had given that part to a girl named Grace,
not concealing the fact that Grace looked, in their opinion, like someone
who stayed home and cleaned up all the time. As the play went on and Grace
steadily read all the most interesting parts with the Fairy Godmother and the
Prince, the C's became more and more upset and began to interpose remarks.
How could the Prince dance with that ugly old thing? they wanted to know.
By the end of the play they had really become the jealous sisters, so much
so that they were almost speechless when the Prince began to go around with
the glass slipper, trying it on all the ladies in the town. Unlike the sisters in
the play, the Three C's knew it was going to fit on that ugly old Grace's foot-
-they could see how this was going to end.
When the Prince got to their house and tried the slipper on the first of the
mean sisters, he was supposed to read the line, "Oh no! Your foot is much
too big for this slipper. You cannot be the lady I seek!" This came as a
surprise to the first sister, Charlene, who was too irritated now to pay
attention to the text, but by the time the Prince got as far as "big" Charlene
jumped up in a fury and yelled, Don’t you say my feets too big, you black
monkey! and slammed her book down.
That broke up the play. Everyone began to laugh and yell Whooo-eee ! The
other two C’s, having looked ahead now and seen the same fate reserved for
them, quit the play too. We ain’t playing no part where they get to say our
feet too big, Mr. Herndon! The bell rang about then, and the class rushed out
still yelling Whooo-eee!, planning to tell everyone about the play and about
the C's big feet. They left "Cinderella" scattered about the room, the chairs
knocked over, the table still up in front.
I left the table there. The next day the C’s tried to recruit someone to move
it back for them, but the class objected. A number of them had playbooks
out and were planning to read another play. But first, they called out to me,
we got to finish that one about Cinderella. They wanted to know how it
37. Movie Day
With the advent of science in 7B I began to show them a lot of films. I felt
I didn't know very much about quite a few areas of science and ought to try
everything; also many of the science films were a pleasure to watch. Ever
since Brotherhood Week 7H had been clamoring for movies, and I
occasionally showed one— a storytelling film, some legends and myths,
puppet plays. I was stuck on the idea of getting films which had some
relevance to English as if we were a real English class, and there weren't
many interesting ones. 7H straightened me out as soon as they saw the
stacks of film cans which appeared in the room. They wanted to see them
all. Those are science films, I told them. Didn't they see those films in
7H didn't listen to that kind of talk. Here they were, and there were the
films. Let’s get started seeing 'em. We got started. We began to see all kinds
of films— at first, of course, all them science movies. They were by far the
best of the school films, being often quite new and usually in color. We saw
them films about rubber plantations, about farm machinery, floods, rockets,
geology, animals— everything. 7H was especially pleased with the animal
and seashore films, which were universally thought beautiful. One film in
particular— from Bell Telephone, about weather— was a great favorite. In it an
old professor was explaining winds and fog and all to some children, and he
was constantly interrupted by indignant animated figures representing North
Wind, South Wind, a goddess, the Old Man of the Sea and so on, who
insisted that it was they, not the professor's hot and cold air masses, who
were responsible for which way the wind blew. 7H was almost charming,
discussing the film on the basis of who was right in the argument, and we
showed it lots of times.
Certain subjects were less popular. Films showing blood or one-celled
animals or bacteria under a microscope both frightened and disgusted 7H.
One particular film which showed cells surrounding and devouring alien
organisms made several of them ill and the rest considered it too scary. On
the other hand, the habits of bears and "The Red-Winged Blackbird" made
everyone happy and made up for the occasional discomforts of science.
Somehow Friday got established as Movie Day; the films were usually
short, and we could often show three in a period. Like the events of 9D I'm
not sure how it happened. It must have come about quite gradually, but it
seems to me that all of a sudden we were having Movie Day and that this
Movie Day had certain characteristics, none of them determined or agreed
upon by me. 7H was still sticking to the schedule, of course: reading or
language groups, library, recording (to which they began to add the
playbooks)— reading-group day might be a day of complete uproar when no
group could do any reading at all, but it was still reading-group day— but
their idea was the more schedule the better, and Movie Day was easily added
into the scheme.
It turned out that the scheduled and approved activity during Movie Day
was, besides the film itself, eating. I remember Alexandra stating happily to
me one day, Mr. Herndon, on Movie Day we get to bring our candy and our
gum and corn chips and eat 'em while the movie going on. Since we'd
always had a problem in 7H about eating in class, I couldn't quite see where
she got that idea. However, the class was 100 percent agreed; it had already
Who made that decision? How? I've no idea. All of a sudden there was 7H
sitting nicely in the back of the room watching the screen, desks pulled up in
front of them on which were piled bags of chips, sacks of candy and so on.
It was a party. Obviously they had figured out beforehand who was going
to bring what. They didn't want to have all com chips, say, and no M & Ms.
Someone had to bring the drinks. Not everyone could bring something that
time, some being temporarily out of funds, so everything was being shared.
You can't have a party if some people are left out— it wasn't to be like just
everyone that could afford it chewing on something in class.
There they sat in the dark, watching the Four Winds arguing with the
professor. I could hear them passing around the sacks, crunching up the
chips, opening up the cans of root beer and orange. A pleasant and quiet
social chatter arose from them as they commented on the film, the quality of
the food, how everyone looked in the dark. It was miraculous. It was also
I should have put a stop to it immediately, of course. On the other hand, I
didn't really have a chance to. There hadn't been any official decisions about
it beforehand where I could get in there and forbid something— no
committees or class meetings or democratic decisions or any of the other
usual means teachers employ to get the kids to agree to what the teacher
wants and the school condones. In order to forbid it I would have had to
forbid this accomplished fact— turn off the projector, turn on the lights,
collect the edibles, move the desks back and ruin everything.
I wasn't up to it. For, of course, included in that everything I would be
ruining would have to be not only the pleasant but illegal party, but also the
very thing I'd thought hopelessly about back at the post office and at the
Plantation Club and even at home: I would have to ruin and forbid the
solidarity of 7H which all of a sudden existed right before my eyes on Movie
38. May Day!
Springtime at GW was the time for riots. The Tribe had given up and was
becoming violent. By April the story of the year was over— some details,
some dramatics left to tell, but the score was already in. All the promises had
lost their appeal and The Tribe was busting out. Fights. Fires. Broken
windows. Food thrown all over. Neighborhood complaints about vandalism.
Teachers who had kept things in check all year began to have their troubles.
We began to hear about So-and-so who was threatened by a group of kids,
someone else who was swung on by a student, another who hit some kid.
Down the hall old Mrs. Z was knocked flat in the hall by a girl whom she’d
ordered down to the office for chewing gum. She'd ordered that girl and all
the rest of them down to the office all year long, but now she had ordered
once too often. Riots began to take place in the rooms— books tom up and
papers thrown around, desks overturned and pushed out into the halls, the
helpless teacher calling for assistance. Oddly enough, the faculty took it in
stride. It happens every year, they seemed to say. We try. We hold ’em for as
long as we can. ...
Skates was an exception to the general fatalistic mood. The paragraph to
copy didn't do the trick these days, the kids weren't going along with jokes
and bantering. One day during a hard spring rain his afternoon class began to
raise hell. They did the usual— tore up books, scattered the contents of
cabinets all over, threw paper out the window. Skates gave up and dashed
out of the room to get help, and the kids locked him out. By the time he got
back in with the aid of the custodian and Mr. Grisson, the contents of his
desk had been thrown out the window too, the desk itself overturned, his
grade book torn up, and so on. Jim, he told me, it was a real, honest-to-God
Skates's feelings were really hurt. Why me? he asked me over and over
again. Why me?
I'm on their side, he kept saying. He was really upset. One detail of the
riot, which he took to be directed at him personally, bothered him more than
the rest. The kids had thrown his hat out the window along with the rest of
the stuff; it had sailed down into the gutter. When Skates got back in the
room and looked out the window, there he saw his hat floating in that muddy
water along with the papers and books, and somehow it was that sight which
was too much for him. He was almost crying as he told me about it, They
threw my hat out! he kept saying. Why did they want to throw out my hat?
He'd always felt that he and The Tribe were just passing the time together
while waiting for history to catch up with them; the idea was to make the
time pass pleasantly and offer mutual support in the meantime. If there were
irritating or troublesome moments along the way, that was OK with him, for
basically he liked the kids just as they were, just as he really liked the idea of
jitney girls. The majority of the teachers were different, of course, and they
weren't affected personally at all. They had believed all along that there was
a war going on; outnumbered, they used every trick and all the moral
authority granted them by the school and the country of America to hold the
fort as long as it might be held. Now, retreating, still punishing the enemy
whenever possible, giving ground, they hadn't given up and they weren't
depressed. They would regroup, they told themselves, and come back next
year for those battles, which they expected would follow the same pattern of
I viewed the daily slaughter with detachment and no little vanity. If at the
end of the story the other teachers were beginning to lose, I was just starting
to win. If their programs were falling apart, we were just starting to move. I
felt we'd been lucky again. The potential rioters in 7H and 9D didn't have
time to riot now. They could have rioted with ease back in October or even
February, but that hadn't been the rioting season. Now it was too late.
7H had their schedule to adhere to, and Movie Day activities to plan. If
they did these things with a good deal of noise and what adults would have
to call disorder, there was no more of either than before. In fact there was a
good deal less; in order to plan for Movie Day, for instance, each kid had to
give up a little on his right to panic and make a fuss. Movie Day was worth
it. The point is that once we were inside the room, the general atmosphere of
riot didn't affect us; by now I didn't give a damn what happened outside the
9D was busy every day with the playbooks. They not only read almost
every day, but they were discussing— all right, they were arguing,
squabbling, making a lot of noise, using a lot of bad language, not exactly
abiding by Robert's Rules of Order— certain questions about play-reading.
They were discussing who read well and why, they were telling each other
what the play was about, they argued about where certain characters should
sit at the table. The most important question to them was what relationship
the reader should have to the character he was reading. Two solid factions
arose; the first arguing that if the character was a giant, a big kid had to read
the part. The second disagreed; they thought that if the character was a
beautiful girl, any girl who read beautifully, who sounded beautiful, should
read it. Mr. Herndon, someone would cry, Cerise want to sit in the middle
because she the Queen, but Amy spozed to sit in the middle because she say
the most! They came in the room, slammed down books and stood together
in groups around the room telling each other things like It don't mean you
have to have big feet just because you read the sister who got big feet, or
You read like a monkey, you can be the monkey!
Their values had changed, as they say at State, like your values spozed to
change whenever you have something you want to do. The Three C's, for
instance, were hopeless when it came to getting the play done right. They
always made the same mistake— choosing to be the Queen instead of the
milkmaid, and then being disappointed and jealous when the Queen turned
out to be mean and stupid and the milkmaid was the heroine. They could
never choose to be the milkmaid and as a result were continually being
insulted. The kids tried to keep them in the play without giving them enough
to do to wreck things. The C’s status outside the business of play-reading
didn’t change though. They were still the whitest, still had boss hair, boss
lips and all that. 9D's values were completely realistic; unlike the Three C's,
the rest of the class knew the difference between the play and the world.
The Slambooks had gone out of style by April. The Top Forty was
proceeding as a matter of course, Verna's organization, whatever it had been,
proving to be permanent.
Verna had taken over the management of play production. She didn't read
herself nor did she really remain a part of the audience. During the reading
she stood aside (in the wings, if we'd had wings), tall, frowning, critical,
aloof, attentive, and after each reading she managed to get around to
everyone and tell them what they'd done wrong. Compliments were not her
style; a kid knew he'd read well, in Verna's opinion, if he was up there again
the next time. Occasionally, it's true, she'd make a few general remarks
addressed to no one in particular about how the play was good and that So-
and-so was a good reader. Her system wasn't apparent— its details were not,
anyway — but its purpose was to get plays read aloud in the class, kids
reading them, certain kids doing it, without all that fussing. It wasn't
particularly fair; certain kids read more than others, certain others who didn't
want to read at all found themselves doing so because you spozed to read
once in a while, not just sit on your fat ass and listen all the time. Her
purpose was to produce a good reading of as many plays as possible, taking
into account certain factors— people couldn't be allowed to get too mad and
ruin everything, even bad readers had to be given a turn at least sometimes,
the powerful C’s had to be accounted for, etc.
We were making it. Rolling. They weren't doing things the way a group of
thirty-year-old teachers would do them, of course. They didn't even do them
the way everyone seemed to think that kids should do them, with many a
meeting, committee, schedule, discussion, and vote. Even looking back at
these pages, I don't really know what brought them to it, but they were doing
it, making their revolution in the class. I was enthusiastic, pleased, proud of
In this mood I met with Mr. Grisson in May for his official evaluation of
my year's work. He opened the interview by stating that it was always
painful to him to have to make judgments, but that evaluation was his job. It
was best to be frank. In short he found my work unsatisfactory on every
count; he could not recommend me for rehire in the district. Furthermore he
must say that he considered me unfit for the position of junior high school
teacher in any school, anywhere, now or in the future, and would so state on
my evaluation paper.
The teacher's evaluation form has a number of statements on one side of it,
each followed by two or three boxes to the right of it where a check mark
can be placed. The boxes are labeled Satisfactory or Unsatisfactory, with
sometimes an Excellent thrown in. I don't remember a lot about the form
used (at GW); the statements in the first group were of the type Classroom
Management, Efficient Use of Supplies and Material, Maintains Classroom
Control or Efficient Use of Class Time. Next came things like Cooperates
with the PTA, Maintains Friendly Relations with Staff and last personal
attributes like Neat, Well Groomed, Friendly Relations with Pupils, etc.
As Grissum pointed out, it was the first ones that counted. Presumably you
could learn to be neater or dress more fashionably, learn to get along with
the other teachers, to have friendly relations with kids and all that. The PTA
hadn't existed since the second semester, when it had disbanded because the
only parents who ever came were the six mothers of the six girls with boss
shin, hair, lips and clothes in the A group of the ninth grade, who were also
the officers of the school.
You could even learn, Grissum said sometime during the interview, to
control your class and use your time efficiently. To that end, learning he'd
suggested voice lessons for me, sent Mrs. X and Mrs. Y down, demonstrated
for me himself. When it became clear that I didn't want to learn to do any of
this, there had been nothing to do but give up on me. That was why the voice
lessons hadn't come about.
To his credit, he granted me a long interview and listened to everything I
had to say. It's tempting now to write down a long conversation which I
suppose I must have had with him, what he said, what I said— but I'd have to
make it up. I really don't remember much that we said. On the form, where it
counted, I was totally unsatisfactory. He spoke to the point; the children
were not in their seats on time, they did not begin lessons promptly, many of
them sat around doing nothing, there was not an atmosphere conducive to
study, no effort was made to inculcate good study habits, there was no
evidence of thorough preparation of lessons or goals. I appeared to
encourage activities that were opposed to the efforts of the faculty in
general, I appeared eager to discuss with the students matters irrelevant or
unfit for the classroom, I had no control over their actions, and I steadfastly
rejected aid and advice from experienced people.
I had to talk about results. What about the riots? I wanted to know. What
was the good of saving all those materials, using them efficiently all year
long, if at the end of the year they were all thrown out the window anyway?
What good was the order of these experienced teachers if it ended up in
chaos? No one in my class had rioted, I pointed out; no one locked me out,
or threw my hat out the window. None of this happened in my classes. So
who had the better control? I argued.
He wasn't impressed. He knew there had been riots, he knew that I'd had
none. It didn't matter— in fact, it proved his point, he said. It was another case
where my description was accurate but my conclusion wrong. A riot meant
that some order had been imposed, some control established, since it was
against that control that the children were rebelling. It followed that as I was
allowing them to do as they pleased it was unnecessary for them to riot.
It was right then that I really understood that I was being fired. It hadn't
really occurred to me before. Grissum wanted me to understand that he knew
I had worked hard, that I was serious about what I was doing, that my
character, intelligence and "dedication" weren't in question. What was?
It seemed a matter of ideas of order. This is a problem school, I do
remember his saying. His job, and the job of the teachers, was to make it
into something that was no longer a problem school. He was certain that was
possible. It is the belief in this goal that counts, he told me. He used the word
belief many times. No one is perfect, so a teacher may lose control once,
twice, a hundred times, but if he believes in that control himself, that order,
he will eventually win through.
To what? I wanted to know. I told him that he hadn't seen my classes since
his demonstration, and I thought he should come up and take a look. I
summarized what progress I thought we'd made, omitting the illegal details
of Movie Day and hoping he didn’t come on Friday. He said he would come,
but I shouldn't think that would have any effect on my evaluation. For,
supposing the class had worked out their own system of doing things, I
should realize that wasn't what he thought desirable. The opposite, in fact.
Thinking back about what I've written about Grissum, not only right here
but earlier, I realize I've not been able to make him seem human at all. It was
just as if one of us was of some other species, a Martian perhaps; I imagine
he had the same problem thinking about me. We talked together, Earthman
and Martian, agreeing on everything except what to do.
'What to do — or what we did. That was the real point, I guess. Skates, for
instance, was unpredictable, wrongheaded, narrow-minded, rude, perhaps
selfish, certainly one-way about nearly everything, in attitude, but essentially
everything he did seemed to me human and sane. Grissum was personally
quite affable, reasonable, courteous, tolerant and sensible— but his actions
toward the school and The Tribe never really seemed to me to be human,
nor, in the end, quite sane.
40. "Cinderella" Again
9D blasted in as usual, carping and disorderly— all the old tricks still
performed out of habit, a grab at a skirt, a snatch at a shoe, a taunt, an
accusation. 'Cinderella" was scheduled for performance for the third or
Although we still had plays which hadn't been done, "Cinderella" was a
favorite. They had a different attitude toward it now; it was like people who
go to see Don Giovanni or an old movie they knew how it came out by now,
and could relax and enjoy the details.
Mr. Herndon! Marine here! came a shout. 'Who was Marine? I didn't
know. Then I remembered her, a girl who'd been in the class for the first
month perhaps and then dropped out, no one knowing why as usual. She
stood around, not doing much. Regulars were getting out their books and
paper; they were either planning to work, having had enough of "Cinderella"
or else just making a show of it, planning to listen anyway. I went over to
look at their work and assign something just in case. The class began to
At the end of our interview Grisson had told me, just as we parted, that I
seemed to have a good deal of rapport with the kids, and some real "insight"
into their feelings or whatever. (He thought it might help me out quite a bit
in some other type of work.) I was reminded of this statement when I looked
up and watched 9D organizing itself.
It's really almost impossible for adults, and no doubt especially for adult
teachers, to see anything "constructive" going on in a bunch of kids shouting
at each other. All the adults can see is just that: kids, all bunched together,
yelling at each other. You can’t believe they are doing it for anything you’d
call a purpose; they are simply creating a problem, something that shouldn't
exist at all.
The adults also can't imagine that this problem is going to cease to exist
unless they, the adults, make it cease. They feel that unless they issue orders
and directions and threats, the kids will never stop making noise, never stop
yelling, never get organized.
This feeling is wrong. The adults are wrong on both counts, not because
they are stupid, not even because they lack what Grissum called "insight"
either. They are wrong because almost no one can stand to wait around long
enough without doing anything, so that they can see what all the shouting is
about, or what might happen when it eventually is over. They can't stand to,
and so they never find out. Never finding out, they assume that there was
nothing there. I don't think the quality of insight is unique or even rare,
Grissum to the contrary. What does seem to be rare is the ability to wait and
see what is happening.
I admit 9D could probably out shout the rest of The Tribe, and The Tribe
could out shout everyone else. There they were, about fifteen or so kids, all
in a cluster, standing, shouting at each other, Verna in the middle shouting at
all of them— a hundred demands, questions, orders, all at once. You couldn't
make it out at all. Probably there were a hundred shouted irrelevancies,
threats and insults too. But the fact is this outcry was orderly in intent and in
effect, for in about four or five minutes it was all over, readers were sitting
down, they had books, the audience was getting ready to listen. I doubt very
much if 9D could have been organized to read a play in five minutes, even
by an experienced teacher with a machine gun.
Just before they began, Marine came up to me and asked if she could sit at
my desk, and since I usually sat at the back of the room during the readings,
I said OK. I don't know why she wanted to sit there; you don't have to know
The reading was about halfway through the play— after Cinderella had
been to the ball and gotten back safely by midnight— at a point where the
audience knows something that the mean sisters don't which was an aspect
of "Cinderella" that 9D liked a lot. All of a sudden the door opened with a
bang and there stood Grissum, looking in as he had said he would. He stood
there in the door, erect, unsmiling, while the readers faltered and stopped.
He took a quick look around the room and then, when everything was silent,
glared straight into the room. Glared; there was no question that he didn't
like very much what he saw. We all knew it; we suddenly all felt pretty
guilty. We wished we had been sitting up straight in our desks, all in rows,
silent, diagramming sentences or writing out our spelling words. After
perhaps twenty seconds he stepped back, closed the door, and was gone
without saying a word.
Hell broke loose as it had once before in similar circumstances. It looked
like I might get my riot after all. The readers rose up, playbooks were
slammed down, kids started for each other, a desk fell. Robert ran across in
front of me, chasing someone; I was as mad as the rest of them, so I grabbed
him by the jacket. It was a mistake. Let go my goddamn jacket! he yelled,
struggling to get free. I got a better grip and yelled: Shut up, Robert! Now sit
down! Let go my jacket, he screamed, and gave a great wrench, at which
the jacket tore with a loud rip. Robert looked down at his jacket and, in the
sudden silence as everyone saw what was going on, he shouted: You tore my
jacket, you black motherfucker!
So no riot today; that stopped everything. Oooooh? from all sides. Robert
stood there. But it was all too much for me, and I began to laugh. It summed
up the entire year with The Tribe— the first days, through the library, and the
riots and Grisson's ideas of order up to Robert's summation, the last resort,
the supreme comment and insult: not motherfucker, of course, but black.
I sat down at a desk; the class waited for catastrophe. I ignored them and
they began, after a time, to relax. Later I could hear them, as so many times
before, beginning to talk about what Robert had said, what I had said, how it
started, whose fault it was, what they would have done, why I laughed— the
last ten minutes of a late round with 9D, intellectual and disorderly at the
Verna visited my room after the bell for lunch with an added touch to the
day. She asked me if I'd heard about Marine. When I said no, she told me
that Marine had just had a miscarriage— looking at me to let me know she
knew the word— in old Mrs. Z's room down the hall.
41. Nothing Personal
I spent an afternoon downtown with the district personnel officer, who
convinced me to resign peacefully instead of making them go to the trouble
of firing me. He deplored the fact of a "personality conflict" which had no
doubt been the cause of my poor rating, but he didn't offer me a job with
some other personality type in the district.
It wasn't until the next day at noon that I realized that the personnel man's
advice wasn't so good either. He said that if I was fired it would look rather
bad on my record and I might have more trouble getting another job than if I
just resigned, which was, after all, my privilege. He was sympathetic, but in
his sympathy forgot that alongside my resignation Grissum's statement that I
was "unfit" to teach kids of junior high school age might look pretty bad;
they might as well have ridden me out of town on a rail. But, as I say, we
both forgot that detail and settled things amicably; I cursed myself for it that
I spent the hour walking around the streets nearby; and suddenly had
enough of GW Junior High. I began to imagine to myself what Grissum had
seen when he looked in my room during "Cinderella"— when he looked at a
scene which I was offering up as some great achievement! He saw some
sixteen or seventeen kids slouched in desks here and there throughout the
room wherever they felt like sitting. He saw one girl sitting at the teacher's
desk and the teacher himself at the back of the room at a kid's desk. None of
them, teacher included, were doing anything, except perhaps listening to
about ten other kids hunched around a table reading a child's fairy tale in
their various unimproved accents. No writing, no paragraphs, no work-
books, no recitation, no lessons, no rows, no teaching, no taking notes, no
learning, no reading, at least not of anything that mattered— not a goddamn
thing except that goddamn "Cinderella."
The more I thought about "Cinderella," the madder I got. Those playbooks
were full of the kinds of stories and fairy tales every kid in America knows
by heart by the time he's eight or ten at the most. "Rumpelstiltskin," "Snow
White," "The Three Sillies," "The Little Mermaid," "Seven at One Blow,"
"Jack the Giant Killer," "Gawain and the Green Knight," "The Tin Soldier"—
part of the cultural heritage, as they say. Everyone already knew them, and it
was a waste of time for those ninth-graders to read that stuff.
The only trouble was that 9D didn't know them at all. Like 7H and
"Cowboy Small," they somehow hadn’t inherited these epics. 9D was
mainly interested in these works because they wanted to know how they
came out. What would the witch do? Would the Princess guess the dwarfs
name? Snow White awaken?
They read them aloud because they were plays and spozed to be read
aloud; they liked them because they hadn't heard them before, and after
they'd heard them they liked them because they were good.
So I was angry at Grisson for not seeing this and for breaking up our
reading. I was mad at myself for being a fool and not realizing that I was
going to have to satisfy someone besides 7H and 9D in this particular world.
Most of all I was furious at The Tribe, for not being able to do anything the
way you spozed to. Why couldn't they sit in rows and hear the play? Why
hadn't they read "Cinderella" at age six or seven or eight and let me alone
with it and the idiotic Top
Forty, written and edited their compositions, answered questions and shut
up? Why, with all this fuss about what they spozed to get, didn't they ever
plan on doing what they spozed to do without a series of tantrums? Why
couldn't they read? Why couldn't they admit it, that they couldn't? Why keep
on with eye- watering and lip reading and making life miserable for every-
7H had to take it. I shouted them into their seats, cutting off their entering
frolic. I lectured them about doing their part. I told them they required
immense tolerance of me, but weren't willing to attempt anything of the
slightest difficulty. I told them their misbehavior was only an alibi to avoid
the simple responsibilities of every other school kid in the country.
It's surprising how easily this kind of talk comes, once you begin. They
reacted correctly at first, hanging their heads, waiting silently for it to be
over with and to get on with the period; after a little while, though, they had
trouble keeping it up, not being used to it with me and not quite believing it
either. One kid got up; Roy began to laugh. Come on, Mr. Herndon,
someone said, we ain’t that bad.
Once started though, I couldn't get over it that easily, and when I heard
someone begin to giggle over to my left I hauled off without looking and
slammed whoever it was backhanded across the head. There was a yell from
the kid; oooooh? went the class. I looked, and saw Vincent halfway out of
his seat where I'd knocked him. He rushed out the door, crying and yelling
he was going to tell the principal on me.
Everyone shouted at me at once, mostly to the effect that I shouldn't have
slugged old Vincent of all kids, but Roy or Wade or Alexandra instead.
It was true, of course. I felt I didn't give a damn; it was I who was getting
fired, not Vincent, not 7H. During all the advice and criticism Vincent
marched back in, still sniveling but standing up straight, and stomped to his
seat. He was a big hero. I felt like knocking him out of it again.
Instead I came off it. I made everybody shut up. I felt bad now about
slugging Vincent, and told them so, but there wasn't anything I could do
about it now. I told Vincent I was sorry, and that I didn't mean to hit him
personally; that I just felt like hitting somebody and he was just in the right
place at the wrong time. After some discussion, 7H seemed to accept that as
It was only right that there should be a few dramatics left for the end of the
year, and fitting, also, that Ruth should have a share in them. Rumors and
warnings about Ruth had been a part of daily life at GW since Ruth's own
warning to me before school even started. During the year I heard she had
put a fifth-grade teacher in a mental hospital, caused a sub to leave the room
screaming, knocked a kid's teeth out. I heard that she was really twenty-one,
fourteen, and all ages in between, that she had dropped out of school for one
year, three years, that she had had a baby, an abortion, an affair with a male
teacher at GW, been a prostitute for students in a house across the street.
None of these were Skates's inventions. He stuck to his own story about her.
One afternoon a crowd of yelling kids outside the school announced a fight
in progress. It turned out that Ruth and another girl were fighting and that
Ruth was beating the other girl badly. Grisson, the secretary and two other
women teachers happened to be around— one of the teachers was the
homemaking teacher (Negro) and the other actually the nurse (white)— and
had gone out to break it up. When they got there the other girl was in bad
shape and scared worse; it was decided that Grisson would take her home
and the rest would conduct Ruth into the office.
After about ten minutes in the office, the teacher and the nurse decided to
leave Ruth with the secretary to await Grisson's return. They were going
(Here I have to say that I didn't see any of this myself; the reports are from
the three people involved — secretary, nurse, and teacher.)
But when they made for the door, Ruth said, according to all three, You
ain't going nowheres.
Now, Ruth, they all said.
If I got to stay, you got to stay, said Ruth.
Argument began, the women saying Now, Ruth, again and trying to make
her see reason, Ruth simply repeating that if she stayed, they all stayed.
They gave up and turned to go anyway, at which Ruth jumped up, grabbed
an office chair, swung it over her head threateningly, and allowed as how
they weren't going nowhere. They tried to talk, but Ruth was through with
talk. She ordered them all out of the office. If they didn’t do what she said,
she was going to bust them over the head with that chair. They went. She
ordered them into a nearby open classroom and, inside, ordered them to sit
down. She remained standing, the chair over her head, leaning it against the
wall over her head. Those school-office chairs are heavy chairs. As they sat
there, they said later, she lectured them a mile a minute about who was
doing the ordering now, and told them what their heads would look like if
and when that chair hit them. They were terrified, they admitted. They kept
wondering when Grisson was coming back; what could be taking him so
long? Ruth kept them there for— their reports vary— a half hour, twenty
minutes, forty-five minutes.
Abruptly, Ruth let them go. She didn't say why. Now you can go, she said,
putting the chair down, opening the door and going out herself. You going
because I let you go, she said, turning around just once to tell them.
The three were heroes for a few days, and the faculty became intellectuals
too and discussed what had happened, what should have happened, what
they would have done. There was a brief undercurrent of suspicion: Where
was Grisson all this time? Certainly he would have handled it ...
Ruth herself was out of school for a week, but returned in time to be
promoted with the rest of 8B to the ninth grade.
Let me say clearly in advance that I don't know how Harvey learned to
read. I don't know when he learned. I couldn't say this method worked or
that one, whether phonics or word recognition, reading groups, flash cards,
tape recorder, structural linguistics, or "Cowboy Small."
On one of those last days, a commotion came from his reading group. I
went over. Harvey stood up and announced to me, Mr. Herndon, I can also
read! Everyone jeered, with some justification. It wasn't as if Harvey had
ever admitted he couldn't read.
You go on and test me, Mr. Herndon! cried Harvey. That was new, so I
went over and got a copy of Red Feather. I turned to a page I was pretty sure
he hadn't memorized and gave it to him. He held it standing up and, sure
enough, began to read it. It was a section where Red Feather, the Indian boy,
is learning to make arrows from the old arrow maker. I could remember
reading it myself as a child. Harvey read about making the shaft straight by
pulling it through a hole bored in a block of hardwood or a piece of
sandstone. I can't remember which. He stumbled a little, stopped and
puzzled, moving his lips, but he read it. Everyone knew he was reading,
not just reciting something he knew by heart.
When he finished I said, We ought to give Harvey a hand. Everybody
clapped and cheered; naturally there were a few calls of watermelon-head
and chump mixed in. After the ovation Harvey couldn't shut up; he was in a
daze. He kept talking like a reformed drunkard, telling about how bad things
were when he couldn't read, how he knew all the letters, but put them
together and they just didn't mean anything to him before, but now and what
he planned to read next... them comics ...
Finally someone couldn't stand it any more and yelled out, Harvey, why
don’t you shut up! You ain’t nothing but a little colored boy!
That tore it! I thought. But Harvey didn't care. He had a big, pink
ringworm spot on his forehead, I remember, and he said reasonably, just as
if it weren't completely unheard of at GW, I know I'm just a little colored
boy. What about it?
44. A Few Fast Words
On the last day of school, Hazel and Ramona told me I was the nicest and
best teacher they ever had. I told them I bet they said that to all their
teachers; the class agreed loudly that they did.
After lunch a couple of men met me at the door to my classroom and
introduced themselves as officials from the union. They'd heard I was being
fired and wanted to know if I wanted to fight it. I thought it was a little late
for them to be coming around. They admitted that was true, but said they
had a big case coming up for two or three Negro teachers who were
in the same boat and they hadn't been able to get around to me. The
idea was to fight the cases on the grounds of racial prejudice; I could see I
wouldn't do them any good there. I told them it was pointless anyway, since
there wasn't any use in my working with Grisson. I had other things to do, I
told them. Keep up the good work for the union! they encouraged me, and
we left it at that.
Later I heard they had lost the case, which was no surprise. There had been
plenty of other Negro teachers rehired. I didn't think there was any
significant prejudice against Negro teachers in the district; if the Negro
teachers didn't mind, the district certainly didn't. Classes went by. No one
had anything to add. Grisson had relented and scheduled an assembly for the
afternoon. I sat with Skates in the balcony of the auditorium, surrounded by
excited students. Skates had gotten a good evaluation, falling down only on
the score of his relationships with the faculty. Grisson had pointed out that
several teachers had taken offense at his heedless remarks and that female
teachers especially thought him overly frank in matters relating to sex. He
had gotten a job for next year in Los Angeles, where they have a real Jewish
community, he told me, and also a real Negro population that understands
how to act like one. He was looking forward to it and talked through the first
part of the assembly.
On the stage Grisson was giving out awards for the year— for good
citizenship, class officers and athletes, and finally for the district-wide
spelling contest. He called out the names, waited for the kids to climb up
onto the stage, shaking their hands, leading applause and frowning into the
audience as The Tribe expressed occasional disbelief in the spelling ability
of such-and- such a watermelon-head.
This spelling contest had been a big thing at GW, for they were in
competition not only with themselves but with other schools in town. I
remembered, a couple of months back, giving out the tests, which arrived all
sealed up in big envelopes; we took the tests and got the returns. All those
who scored over a certain percentage got to take the next test, and those high
enough in that took a third. Those who spelled well enough in the third got
the awards up on the stage. They were all ninth-graders from A or B classes.
All except one. After it seemed that all the awards had been distributed,
Grisson paused significantly. Everyone waited. Then he said, There is one
more spelling award which may come as a little surprise. It is my great
pleasure now to call up the last winner in the spelling contest— Leon LaTore.
As Leon LaTore strolled up on the stage, The Tribe went wild. The kids
roared out in what seemed to me equal parts of disbelief, astonishment, glee
and disgust, keeping it up long after Leon LaTore had shaken Grisson's hand
and left the stage. Around us I could see other teachers nodding and smiling;
it was another victory— the rebel brought back into the fold, a threat to the
system conquered by the carrot. Grisson was leading the way, and
everything was OK.
Unfortunately, I was aware that Leon LaTore hadn't ever taken the
spelling tests. They were given only in English classes, and Leon LaTore
only had one English class— mine; he hadn't been there when I gave it. He
hadn't been in any classes then. I suppose Grisson could have called him in
and given him the test privately, but it didn't seem likely, nor did it seem
likely that Leon LaTore would have come in and taken that test. In any case
Leon LaTore couldn't spell anyway.
So why the award? What the hell? Either Leon LaTore forced some good-
spelling kid to sign his- Leon LaTore’s— name to his own spelling paper, or
else the whole thing was rigged. Lorget it, said Skates; it’s another goddamn
bargain. I couldn't see that it made a winner out of anyone.
Like many another event that year there wasn't an answer available, but it
was the last day and I didn't have to worry about it. Lorget you ! I said,
talking to myself out loud. Two kids in front of me started to giggle. You
hear Mr. Herndon? one of them said to the other. He say, Lorget you! The
movie came on then, something about a bullfighter and a kid. The Tribe was
restless during it, standing up, talking, scuffling. Occasionally a teacher
would get up and jerk some kid out of the auditorium, the kid protesting, Let
go my clothes! I was brooding about the position I found myself in. I felt
that if I'd been fired up there in the mountains near Yosemite, it wouldn't
have mattered much to me. I hadn't thought of that job as a permanent
situation or a serious matter. I hadn't considered how to teach, I'd had no
goals for my classes— it had been a job. Now, at the end of this year, I was
aware I really was a teacher; whether good or bad didn't enter into it. I
couldn't remember when I'd worked so hard or concentrated what
intelligence and energy I possessed so seriously on any one effort.
In short it seemed unlikely that any other kind of work was going to satisfy
me, at least right then, but it seemed even more unlikely that I was going to
get another teaching job very soon. It was a kind of bind I wasn't used to.
Around Skates and me the kids stopped scuffling and began to cheer and
yell, I looked at the screen. In the movie, the bull had just gored a matador.
Two men came out to distract it, and the bull began to chase them around the
ring, crashing into the wooden barrier as the men dodged behind it. Time
and time again the bull chased and crashed. The kids yelled and laughed and
stood up and fell down again helpless with laughter. Hey, Jim! Skates yelled
to me. Look, The Tribe likes it! They like it! He was laughing now too,
raising his fist and waving it in the air.
Suddenly the lights went on in the auditorium, the film stopped, and
Gris sum appeared on the stage. He warned them that any further
demonstrations of that sort wouldn't be tolerated; if it happened again the
film would be stopped and they could return to their classrooms. Sh! said
Let 'em alone! Skates called out loudly from the balcony. Hell, he said to
me, it's the first time all year they like something. So let'em alone....
Well, the lights went back out, the bull chased-everyone around the ring,
the kids yelled. In time the movie was over, the lights came on, the kids
were dismissed, the season was over too, and we all went home.
My older son Jay was almost four when we spent a summer in Mexico. He
liked Mexico pretty well, except for the odd habit the Mexican kids had of
speaking Spanish. We could see that he soon understood a lot of what they
were saying and urged him, as parents will, to speak Spanish, but he always
refused. Perhaps he thought it no good to encourage the Mexican kids in
their stubborn ways.
A year later, in the normal course, he went to kindergarten back in the
United States. He found it mildly disappointing. There were no toys, he said,
and when they got to go outside to play, the teacher always went with them.
I was always asking him how things were going at school, and he was
always answering, Fine. I pressed for details: What do you guys do there?
One day he said, When we get there we line up, then we go in and sit down
at our place, then we get up again, then we talk to the flag.
You talk to the flag?
I could see he thought the subject closed, but I said, Well, what do you say
to the flag?
He turned on the TV. How do I know? he said.
They're talking to it in Spanish.
The kindergarten, it seemed, had some odd habits too. Still, you could see
he wasn't bothered by it. For the kindergarten didn't require him to talk to the
flag himself, or to understand what they were saying to it. All it required of
him was that he stand up and look as if he knew what was going on. That
wasn't hard, and it didn’t take long, and so he didn't mind doing it.
It's now eight years since my season at GW. I spent a year and a half
working part time at the post office and substitute-teaching in the city and
the suburbs. Fran put in too many hours working in offices— she could have
told the girls a thing or two about that, paradise. Then one of the schools
where I was substituting, a junior high, had a midyear opening and I got the
job. I felt grateful to them; they hired me against Grissum's
recommendation, and they didn't have to. After two years there I began to
think about settling accounts with GW, and I wrote this book. It was finished
around the beginning of 1965.
I still work at that school, which is in a suburb. When I first went to work,
it had an air of newness. The school was small, the families mostly Jewish
and Catholic and well up in the middle economic class, happy with their
simple escape from the troubles of the city. For awhile we had a Negro
student, a little kid who played the bongos in the talent shows.
Now, in the short time of six years, the population of the suburb has
doubled. Those original settlers who could afford it have moved on down the
road, onto newly excavated, paved and wired hillsides. The city moved out
to replace them. Their replacements were more often working-class, spoke
more Spanish, were darker, more occasionally black, had more children,
fewer dads, collected more welfare, took achievement tests less well.
There were also more of them. For we now have twice as many students,
although the size of the school is the same. The kids won't all fit in the
multi-use room at once. The teachers won't all fit in the teachers' room at
the same time. We seem to have more visits from policemen, and more
pinkeye. We also seem to notice a larger percentage of kids who aren't
making it. This last year three teachers and I worked with a special group of
kids who, although "testably" bright, read effectively at lower than fourth-
grade level— some a lot lower. We could only take 80 kids. There are another
200 who qualify, from all reports. The school population is close to 1,200.
Doesn't that remind you of the popular ghetto-school statistic, the one about
one-fourth of the students reading at more than two years below grade level?
We are beginning to look like a real school. (It is a real school you
watermelon- head! I know it a real school, but I mean it look like it is too!)
Things just move more slowly away from the city. When I first came, our
suburban kids were beginning to use the word tough, which GW had already
abandoned. It took two more years for boss to sound right to them, and bad
never really caught on. It was not until this year that I finally began to hear
the immortal Forget you ! A former student came by to see me the other day,
and, among other things, he told me there were a lot more Negroes up at the
high school now. A lot more bloods, he said. What did he think about that?
OK, he said, In a funny way, he thought he learned a lot from them. Then he
laughed. Besides, he said, it makes things more colorful.
Do I give the impression that we have become a Negro school? Or even an
"integrated" school? Not at all. If there are 30 Negro kids with us, I’ll be
surprised. It's still difficult for Negro families to move into this suburb.
Perhaps there are a hundred "Latin" types. We are merely colorful.
But with all this change, you'd imagine we would make a number of
changes in our ways, and of course we have. The district, for instance,
changed superintendents. The school has changed principals— every two
years. Vice-principals have lasted on the average a year and a half. One year
we changed half the staff.
Grouping by ability, formerly anathema in the district, has caught on. We
group them high, low and average in math and science; English teachers are
waiting their turn. Below that we’ve tried "remedial" classes, and above that,
"enrichment." (The remedial kids complain that they ain't learning nothing
but that baby stuff, and the enriched that they do the same thing as the other
kids, just twice as much of it.) We "experiment" a lot. We teach Spanish
experimentally to everyone, then drop it experimentally. We experiment
with slow learners, with non-achievers, with Gore programs, team teaching,
with "innovative" programs. These programs, being only "experiments,"
remain on the fringe of things; the general curriculum, not being an
experiment at all, isn't affected by them.
Mainly, our ideas of order have changed. There are too many kids for us to
know them all personally, so we spend more time filling out and reading
forms in order to learn about kids we don't know. Along with that, we
express an urge for standardization. If we don't know the kid, we'll make up
for it by knowing that he was taught percentage in the seventh grade, had
South America in the sixth.
The eccentric desires of 1,200 students are much less tolerable than those
of 600. Having been given too much boiling water, our response is to bottle
it tighter and increase the pressure. We constantly discuss important
questions: Shall teachers let kids leave the room during class period? Will
we let teachers allow gum-chewing in class? Ought we to have one-way
corridors? What is the library for? We legislate against running, yelling,
eating, tardiness, cosmetics, transistors, classroom parties and free elections.
We invent penalties for transgressors; then we must invent another set of
penalties for those who won't abide by the first. So that if a kid cuts school,
we give him detention. If he cuts the detention, we suspend him from school,
thus solving the problem of the kid who doesn't want to come to school.
When I first worked here, you could hear teachers comment, as one man
did, If it wasn't for the kids, I couldn't stand this job! Now we spend our
faculty meetings dreaming up ways to contain an enemy force.
Settling accounts with GW, I guess, just isn't in the cards. In fact, I see I've
been rambling. Members of our staff do the same thing when they talk about
the good old days when we had fewer kids, fewer problems, and were more
informal, more friendly, sang a less worried song.
What went wrong? In the old days— six years ago- the kids got along with
the system. (Would they now, since we have legislated against safety
valves?) The kids are different now. Upon reflection, they too come up with
the word deprived. If more kids can't or won't go along with us, it is because
we have more deprived kids. If virtually all the kids from "lower-income"
and "minority" groups are in our own low-ability groups, we turn to the
counselors, the social workers, the clinics. Them is deprived kids, goes the
cry, and someone ought to do something about it.
Deprived of what? Of intelligence? Do we claim that lower-class kids are
just naturally dumber than middleclass kids, and that’s why they all in that
dumb class? Naturally not. We have a list. They are deprived of ego
strength, of realistic goal-orientation, of family stability, of secure peer
relationships; they lack the serene middle-class faith in the future. Because
of all that, they also lack self-control, cannot risk failure, won't accept
criticism, can't take two steps back to go one forward, have no study habits,
no basic skills, don't respect school property, and didn't read "Cow-boy
You can add to this list, or you can find another. But what such a list adds
up to is something simple: some kids can't take it as well as others.
Some kids can’t stand there calmly while they talk to the flag in Spanish.
Or they can in kindergarten, like Jay, but can't keep it up in the fourth or
seventh grade. If the kids went along with us in the old days, it was for two
reasons: first, there were fewer of them and we were able to allow them
enough leeway to live; and second, they were white, middle-class kids in
America. Not that the system in general was right for them— only that they
had a richer life-diet outside of school, and so were tough enough to take it.
All right. Some can take it, and some can't. Those who cannot expose the
point— it’s not any good for anyone. My wife's father was once bitten by a
cotton- mouth, and survived. Another man from the same community was
bitten and died. No one argued that the experience was good for either one
of them. Sitting in a classroom or a home pretending to "study" a badly
written text full of false information, adding up twenty sums when they're all
the same and one would do, being bottled up for seven hours a day in a place
where you decide nothing, having your success or failure depend, a hundred
times a day, on the plan, invention and whim of someone else, being put in a
position where most of your real desires are not only ignored but actively
penalized, undertaking nothing for its own sake but only for that illusory
carrot of the future— maybe you can do it, and maybe you can’t, but either
way, it's probably done you some harm.
It's difficult to stop. One always doubts the message is clear enough. I took
a ride over by GW the other day, just to take a look. It hadn't changed, that I
could see. Now, of course, it won't change for me at all. As far as I’m
concerned, Boy and Harvey, Alexandra and Ruth still go there. If I were to
work there again, I guess I'd try to do about the same thing, in about the
same way, and as often have little idea about how it was going to turn out.
The only thing is, I now know they aren't unique— that GW is not unique.
More colorful, no doubt, more vehement in showing us the error of our
ways, less cooperative while we talk to the flag, but, as Sullivan said, rather
more like the rest of us than less.
What to do? You can read suggestions for change in a lot of recent books
by serious and intelligent men. I suppose I could add mine. But frankly, I
have almost no hope that there will be any significant change in the way we
educate our children— for that, after all, would involve liberty, the last thing
we may soon expect— and so I have thought merely to describe one time for
you, parents, kids, readers, the way it is.
July 4th, 1967
end of book